Germ-free doesn’t always mean disease-free

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From hand sanitizers to antibiotics in the food industry, various forms of antibacterial agents have become a norm in modern America. One might assume that due to the increased usage of antibiotics and antiseptics, the rates of disease should have decreased. However, statistics have illuminated the opposite.

In a 2013 report, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stated that from 2001 to 2011, there was a 28 percent increase in asthma patients and a steady increase in positive allergen tests. Furthermore, there have been increases in autoimmune diseases over the past few decades. One in 133 people are affected by celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder of the digestive system that is most visibly recognized by its gluten allergy. The numbers are only increasing, according to the National Institutes of Health and the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center.

As a result of these figures, many researchers sought to determine the cause for such an epidemic. What they came across seemed to be contrary to popular belief and became known as the “hygiene hypothesis.” This hypothesis states that, due to the increased usage of antibiotics and germ-free environments, infections in Western countries have dropped, but this decrease comes at the price of an increase in both autoimmune and allergic diseases. A 2012 paper published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology revealed that Amish children living on farms had rates of autoimmune disease and asthma incidence that were far lower than those living elsewhere. These kids grew up around farm animals and larger families, and, as a result, were exposed to a vast range of microorganisms. They also drank the milk right from the farm instead of being exposed to the antibiotics that the conventional methods of milk production utilize.

Doctors such as Martin Blaser, professor of internal medicine at New York University, believe this may be due to the underexposure of the immune system to microorganisms. For example, if you compare the immune system to a defense army, both need to practice differentiating between harmless and harmful threats and need to respond accordingly.

Furthermore, if all the threats are eliminated through a global knockout (in this case, an antibiotic), the immune system is forced to find a new role in the human body. This creates an overactive immune system that is incapable of deciphering between good and bad, thereby attacking cells indiscriminately.

Many of our body’s processes cannot be conducted without the microbiome we have acquired over centuries of evolution. As our habits are changing and the human population is consuming larger quantities of antibiotics, we are destroying that microbiome in the process and decreasing the potency of our immune system. By underexposing children at a young age to their environment and instead protecting them from playing around in the dirt every now and then, we may be doing more harm than good.

This is not to say that you should never practice hand washing or showering, but perhaps we should shake the habit of pumping the hand sanitizer bottle. Faizah Shareef is a junior majoring in exercise physiology.

Faizah Shareef is a junior majoring in exercise physiology.


Featured image courtesy Pixabay user Unsplash