When Joseph Lister first used antiseptic techniques in 1867 (and saved thousands of lives) modern hygiene practices were born. Since then, medicine has worked to create sterile environments free of micro-organisms. However, is a totally sterile environment what’s best for us?

When Dr. Gilbert, associate director of the Institute for Genomic and Systems Biology at Argonne National Laboratory, started studying dolphins in 2014 he noticed that the dirtier their water was the healthier the animals were. “We saw the benefit in increasing the microbial diversity of the home,” he said.

Because, according to the good doctor, the lack of an ecosystem, rich in microbes, might actually cause more harm than good (like drug-resistant strains of powerful superbugs and infection-causing viruses).

The overuse of antibiotics and antiseptic cleaners

Our overuse of antibiotics and antiseptic cleaners is impacting our ability to maintain a balance of healthy microbes in our bodies and environments. As studies continue to show us that harmful species can exploit areas with too few good bacteria to fight back, sterility shouldn’t be our end goal.

From the article:

“Microbes, a microorganism almost always invisible to the naked eye, have spent 90 percent more time here than we have, invisibly evolving for millions of years. Instead of evolving alongside them, we joined forces with them in what scientists call “co-development.” We cannot live without the microbes we host.”

And we cannot live without them because they:

  • impact the shape of many of our organs;
  • replace dying and damaged cells and;
  • help our bodies absorb and store nutrients and fat.

Without these microbes, plants, animals, and humans would die. While some animals start developing microbes at their inception, humans receive their first dose in the birth canal and from that moment on, microbes help bolster our immune systems. They are a necessity.

But, as we’ve overcleaned our homes and selves, we’ve lost some of that diversity. And now we are paying for it. Environments Science writer Ed Yong says, “there are more bacteria in your gut than there are stars in our galaxy,” and of those bacteria, fewer than 100 species of bacteria compromise our health. The rest of them aren’t just harmless but they protect us.

For instance, human milk is filled with a unique substance that babies can’t digest without the help of the microbiome they’ve developed in their guts. And pets alter our microbiomes as well (some for the better and some for the worse); studies have shown that dogs are the most beneficial to a household’s microbial health.

More from the article:

“In 2008, a group of villagers believed to have spent 11,000 years in isolation, were spotted in a remote part of the Amazon rainforest. In 2015, scientists discovered that thousands of years of seclusion had left them with the most diverse microbiomes they had ever seen. Scientists concluded their microbial diversity was further proof that the battles waged against germs in the industrialized world had worked a little too well. Those of us living in modern cities, towns and villages had destroyed so much of the healthy microscopic life that belonged in our bodies, it had rendered our own microbiomes comparatively deficient.”

Joseph Lister wasn’t wrong to start using hygienic practices. But we’ve got to find the balance again. Our bodies will thank us for it.

Source: NY Post