No one wants to get sick, so it's understandable that many people cover their homes in antibacterial spray and run to the doctor for an antibiotic at the first sign of infection. Excessively clean environments aren't nearly as healthy as they seem, though. Indeed, the increase in allergies, autoimmune conditions, and other health problems we've witnessed over the past several decades may be due to a concomitant increase in germophobia. A little dirt, as it turns out, really is good for you, and it's even better for children with developing immune systems.
1. Better Immunity
Microbes are the building blocks of a healthy immune system. Early exposure to small quantities of bacteria can help boost the production of memory T-cells. These cells “remember” how to fight off an infection, enabling your body to kill disease when it invades. Indeed, this approach is very similar to that of vaccinations, making early exposure to small quantities of dirt, germs, and microbes a lot like a natural vaccination.
Research also suggests that some germs may actually support your immune system. In one study, mice raised in a microbe-free environment actually had more health problems than their bacteria-covered brethren. The mice raised in the “dirty” environment produced more invariant natural killer T-cells, thereby improving the health of their immune systems.
2. Fewer Allergies and Autoimmune Problems
Allergies, which occur when the body views a harmless substance as a dangerous invader, and autoimmune conditions, which cause the body to attack itself, are both more common in the developed world, where antibacterial products are readily available. Many researchers believe that excessively sterile environments destroy the body's ability to respond normally to common allergens. Likewise, when raised in conditions that are too sanitary, the body may view even safe microbes as dangerous invaders, causing it to attack itself.
3. Healthier Digestion and Reproduction
Your reproductive and digestive systems are home to massive colonies of microbes that aid in the production of hormones, help you get pregnant (or get your partner pregnant), and break down the food you eat. When this bacterial balance gets out of whack, diarrhea, irritable bowel syndrome, urinary tract infections, yeast infections, and even fertility problems can result. Doctors are increasingly recommending probiotics to help patients maintain an appropriate bacterial balance. These friendly bacteria keep you healthy, but they can't work if your environment is too sterile.
4. Less Antibiotic Resistance
Some bacteria are dangerous, and a handful are deadly. Antibiotics play a seminal role in fighting off dangerous infections, and conservative use of antibacterial hand washes can help you avoid getting infections such as E. coli. When you rely too heavily on antibiotics for every sniffle and sneeze, or when you wash your hands only with antibacterial solutions, though, you make it easier for bacteria to evolve a resistance to antibacterial solutions. When this happens, seriously ill people may find that the medication they hope will cure them does nothing at all.