Are we too darn clean for our own good? - (8/10/2021)

By Dr. Ron Gasbarro

When the pharmacist was a boy, the first time he heard the command "Wash your hands!" was when he went to a pal's house for supper. His mom marched Freddy and me to the kitchen sink and observed while we scrubbed our ever-fidgeting paws with hot water and Ivory soap. "Gosh, Mom," my friend protested, "We're just having franks and beans!" "Freddy, the germs from your hands will get into your food which you will eat and then die," she warned. 

Germs. What did we do before we knew about germs? Well, we died. By the millions. Bubonic plague, cholera, smallpox, and leprosy wiped out entire armies, cities, and world regions. Once Louis Pasteur came along in the 1800s, identified germs, and made the first vaccines, things began to improve. Yet, germs are crafty buggers. Once we got rid of one disease, more would come to its funeral: HIV, Ebola, Spanish influenza, and everyone's politicized favorite, COVID-19. 

Back to Mom. It wasn't like my mom was remiss in making sure we kids washed our hands. She just was not über-obsessive about it. Sure, if we came to the dinner table with obvious gookiness dripping from our stubby little digits, we would get "that look," which meant to clean up before we sat down. After dinner, I do not remember using a clean drying towel for each dish and utensil. Instead, the same one was used until the job was done. Note: We all lived to see adulthood.

So, the question must be asked: Are we too clean for our own good? One expects one's surgeon's hands to be sterilized before cutting into one's skull. But is it a sin if we do not shower every day? With the abundance of modern plumbing, antibacterial soaps, and nuclear-grade cleaning products, we are more hygienic today than ever before. And that's a problem, some germ gurus say. 

Exposure to microorganisms is key to our biology. Most of our immune system is made of material that requires activation by the germs to which we are exposed. Since 99% of the germs around us are beneficial, we rely on them to control the 1% that cause disease. If we wipe out all germs, then the nasty germs have one big head start. To wit, a 2015 international study assessed the effects of household bleach – a tried and true disinfectant – in the homes of young children. Infections like pneumonia and flu were more frequent in homes where bleach was used, the study revealed. Here, the protective good germs had been given the heave-ho. This is not to say that you should let your bathroom become a science experiment. But obsession is deadly in so many other ways.

The brighter side? Scientists have discovered a type of bacteria in plain-old dirt that, when eaten, can make us happier, less anxious, and improve brain function. This bacterium, Mycobacterium vaccae, acts as an antidepressant by increasing levels of serotonin, which we need to feel like the walls are not closing in on us. In one study, mice were fed mouthwatering dirt-and-peanut butter munchies. They found that the crap-eating mice demonstrated better concentration and less anxiety when navigating their mazes in the laboratory. The pharmacist cautions against serving mud pies to one's teens in the hopes of boosting their algebra grades. But a little of your backyard on their bare knuckles won't kill them. Don't be like Freddy's mom, who would scold her poor child: "Don't forget under the nails! That's where the germs like to hide!" Bear in mind, as much as you love the dog sleeping on your bed, he doesn't use toilet paper. And that's our dirty little secret. 

Ron Gasbarro, PharmD, is a recovering pharmacist and writer-in-residence at Rx-Press.



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