A Sanitized World is a Healthier World?

It’s the season for scrubbing, soaping and sanitizing. After all, no one exactly enjoys getting stuck at home miserable with the latest cold or flu strain making its way through all humankind. But is this obsession with absolute cleanliness really the best way to keep ourselves healthy?

We certainly wouldn’t argue with the positives of basic sanitation, and we even agree that washing your hands at strategic points of the day (following restroom use, please) isn’t a bad idea. The fact remains, however, that we live in a sea of germs throughout the year. Viruses, bacteria are everywhere, and they’re generally supposed to be. The chain of life didn’t evolve in a bucket of Lysol.

Our obsession with sanitization, we would argue, is another classic example of self-imposed paradox. The fact is, frequent washing and use of sanitizers end up stripping our skin of healthy oils that actually serve as an external barrier and defense against pathogens. In the most brutal weeks of winter, people often find themselves with rough, even cracked skin, which then becomes an open sewer for every germ it encounters.

On top of it all, experts have warned us literally for years that our society’s use of anti-bacterial soaps will come back to bite us with the advent of “super bugs,” bacterial strains that are immune to much of our pharmaceutical arsenal.

So, what’s the best way to stay free from illness, you ask. Step away from the Purell, and let’s talk.

As we often say on MDA, our current culture has lost faith in the human body’s logic, adaptability, and resilience. Your best defense is not the latest product being peddled; it’s the strength of a healthy immune system. That’s right: save yourself the trouble of stockpiling soap, and stay healthy by simply taking care of yourself.

Let’s review what feeds a happy, healthy immune system:

A Healthy, Anti-Inflammatory Diet
Oh, it’s our hobby horse, and we’re proud of it. Inflammation is the evil empire in our book for good reason. Not only does it cause heart disease, diabetes, and a host of other serious health conditions, it cuts your immune function off at the knees. If your body is constantly attending to inflammation related damage, it won’t be effective in combating everyday pathogens. All together now: lose the carbs and trans fats. And go for anti-oxidants that take on free radicals and related inflammation.

And wouldn’t you know it, protein deficiency figures into the picture. Those protein powerhouses are the building blocks for our immune system. Too little protein means fewer white blood cells to send into battle.

Wait, there’s more. Turns out a low fat diet compromises your natural defenses as well. Who knew? (I see a few hands going up.) A study from the University at Buffalo showed that athletes showed more signs of compromised immunity on very low fat diets than they did on moderate or high fat diets.

Also, make sure you’re incorporating probiotics into your diet. Not only do probiotics promote a healthy gastrointestinal system, they boost general immunity by aiding immune cell production.

Finally, optimum immune function depends on a constant adequate supply of essential vitamins and minerals. Make sure your diet feeds these needs, and consider a comprehensive supplement to ensure your body is getting what it requires to keep you healthy.

Moderate, Smart Exercise
We aren’t talking about running yourself into the ground here. Very high intensity exercise actually compromises your immune function. Elite athletes, as Mark will tell you himself, are at higher risk for chronic infection.

But research time and again (as we reported recently) supports the benefits of moderate exercise for healthy immune function. In addition to reducing stress, moderate exercise reduces the risk for chronic inflammation, leaving your immune system free to fight off that head cold your coworker has been spreading around the office.

Deep Relaxation
Of course, a good night of shut eye does the body a world of good, but an increasing number of research studies support the importance of the deep relaxation induced by regular meditation. A recent study out of the University of Madison-Wisconsin showed that subjects who received eight weeks of training in mindfulness meditation exhibited significantly stronger immune response than the control group, as measured by antibody production following flu vaccination.

Given the role of chronic stress in inflammation, pairing meditation with healthy diet and exercise seems like a perfect prescription. Take all of the above and sleep in tomorrow morning!

Are you one of the people that has fallen for the Purell trap, carrying a small bottle of hand sanitizer everywhere you go? What do you think about all this?

benchilada Flickr Photo (CC)

Further Reading:

Do Emergen-C and Airborne Actually Work?

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15 thoughts on “A Sanitized World is a Healthier World?”

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  1. Glad to see you mention cracked skin – I am very cautious about how much I put my hands (and feet, actually) in water in the winter because the skin around my thumbnails cracks. I wash my hands after using the bathroom, and they get washed when I cook because I am usually washing vegetables. (It’s not a meal in my house without veggies!) Add a shower every other day, and a wash if my hands are visibly soiled, and that’s the extent of how wet my hands get. I even use rubber gloves to wash the dishes.

    The only exception is that I wash my hands frequently whenever I go to the doctor. My doctor’s practice is in a giant hospital, so I generally wash my hands on my way in, my way out, and sometimes once while I’m waiting.

    I don’t get sick any more often than my coworkers; in fact, I think I get slightly fewer colds than average.

  2. Ok so what’s the best soap to use when we do need to wash our hands? I have been using anti-bacterial soap for quite some time, but have heard more bad things about it in recent months.

  3. How’s this for timing? From a Mayo Clinic newsletter I received today:

    Soapy debate: Antibacterial or regular?
    Despite soaring popularity, antibacterial soap is no more effective at killing germs than is regular soap. And using antibacterial soap may lead to the development of bacteria that are resistant to the products’ antimicrobial agents, making it even harder to kill these germs in the future. In general, regular soap is fine.

  4. excellent stuff mark
    here’s some more data to back up your immune story:
    did you you know that:
    *high blood glucose (i.e. high carb low fat diet etc) can damage your immune system:
    In the constant fight against disease, our bodies have a sophisticated defence mechanism – our immune system. Part of this system are cells called neutrophils , a type of leucocyte or white blood cell, which circulate in our blood streams and mop up any bacteria or other foreign bodies they come across. This process is called phagocytosis . While phagocytosis is an energy requiring mechanism that needs an adequate supply of the blood sugar, glucose, too much glucose has the effect of reducing the neutrophils’ ability to ingest and kill off invading bacteria:
    Sanchez A, et al. Role of sugars in human neutrophilic phagocytosis. Am J Clin Nutr 1973; 26: 1180-84
    Ringsdorf WM jr, Cheraskin E and Ramsey RR jr. Sucrose, Neutrophilic Phagocytosis, and Resistance to Disease. Dent Surv 1976; 52 (12): 46-48

    *polyunsaturated vegetable oils (sunflower oil etc – those oils that the “health” “authorities” wanted us to replace those “nasty” sat fats) dampen the immune system very effectively
    Lipids and Immune Function
    Joseph J. Vitale and Selwyn A. Broitman
    Boston University School of Medicine, Mallory Institute of Pathology, Boston, Massachusetts 02118

    There is in vitro and in vivo evidence to suggest that dietary lipids play a role in modulating immune function. A review of the current literature on the interrelationships among dietary lipids, blood cholesterol levels, immunosuppression, and tumorigenesis makes for a very strong argument that (a) immunosuppression may be causally related to lymphoproliferative disorders, as well as to tumorigenesis and (b) diets high in polyunsaturated fat, relative to diets high in saturated fat, are more immunosuppressive and are better promoters of tumori genesis. The effects of dietary fat on immune function seem to be mediated through its component parts, the unsaturated fatty acids, specifically linoleic, linolenic, and arachidonic.

    All the best

  5. I never use anti bacterial soap, good ole’ plain soap does the trick.

  6. I recall reading something about the immune systems of today’s suburban kids being underdeveloped because of our over-sanitized culture. Couple that with kids that don’t play outside, and just plain don’t get dirty, and you have kids that are highly prone to illnesses. It’s amazing how “normal” it is to be sick these days. I was at a social function Saturday and listened to three (of 6 total people at the table) talking about their migraines and I was thinking “This isn’t normal…everyone should not be having headaches.” But we’ll just continue (as a society) popping pills and vaccinating against things the body can deal with on its own and wonder why our health never improves.

    Scott Kustes
    Modern Forager

  7. It’s mostly the rubbing that cleans your hands, so any soap will do as long as you use it for 20 seconds or more…

  8. Scott,

    It was only a few hundred years ago that we even washed our food at all. Eating dirt (and the microbes that came with it) were actually incorporated in to the evolutionary “design” of our immune systems. We need dirt to survive! Add to that the notion that sugar suppresses the immune system (thanks, Markus) and we have more sick kids than ever, getting more frequent sicknesses because they don’t get exposed enough and/or when they do, they can’t respond adequately.

  9. Thank you for publishing this article. I am tired of hearing an over indulged had sanitizing, diet restricted society. Everyday, it seems that the only topic of conversation is disease an cleanliness – in the means of hand sanitizers.
    There’s simply nothing natural about today’s mindset.

  10. I got really dry skin (atopic skin) so i never, ever use soap. So far no problems.

  11. Reminds me of an experiment we did in my high school Biology class back a LONG time ago! We had two petrie dishes. We swiped our hand across one, then closed it. Then we went and washed our hands with soap. (I can’t remember if it was anti-bacterial or not… i’m thinking not because this was in 82 or something and I don’t recall antibacterial being the big fad yet.)

    For a week we checked the progress of the dishes. The one where we had washed our hands grew bacteria at a MUCH faster rate. There was hardly any on the one where we had dirty hands.

    I always remembered that when people went off about washing their hands so much! Myself, I wash after the bathroom, when in the kitchen (especially when cooking meat), and in the shower. But that’s about it.

    And I have to say I usually get maybe one cold a year– if that. And I’ve had the flu three times in 15 years. And thinking back– all three times were when I was super stressed out, doing way too much and not getting enough sleep or eating right (like finals in college).

  12. This is a fascinating subject rarely addressed. Obviously, Grok did not have soap tho’ in nature there are some soap-like plants. I never used to wash any produce til my new husband made me. Since I have dry skin and hair, I only shower a couple times a week and don’t use soap except on the target areas (groin, armpits, feet, hands) since I learned on Mercola’s website that soap prevents the skin from absorbing Vit. D.

    I haven’t been sick, had a cold or flu or infection (or a cavity) for over 20 years. I joke that I have to throw food on the floor once in a while to keep up my immune system. As a boomer I grew up playing in dirt out in the sun and feel lucky I lived in that era.

    This oversanitized world is taking its toll!

  13. Yo mark, the last science daily link has a 20% in it that needs taking out of the html to work. Otherwise, good article.