Time to Get Down and Dirty
Staying too clean can be bad for you. Let your good germs take care of the bad ones.
Only a small percentage of bacteria are pathogenic. We are already swarming with millions of microbes in our houses, on our bodies and inside our bodies. But when we scrub too much, and use anti-bacterial products, we let the nasty ones take over, says the
German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv). Do you have the “courage to aim for less cleanliness”? Here’s the basis for their idea:
Ecosystems like high-biodiversity grasslands and forests are more resistant to disturbances, such as invasive species, climate fluctuations and pathogens, than lower-diversity ecosystems. If this diversity is reduced, basic ecosystem functions are lost. This so-called stability hypothesis has been proven in hundreds of biological studies. This research mainly deals with the world of animals and plants, but when looking at our own body or home through a microscope, an equally diverse community of microorganisms is revealed. Potentially, similar laws could apply to these communities as to the ‘big‘ ecosystems, and this could have far-reaching consequences for our health care.
There aren’t enough studies at this micro scale to draw sweeping conclusions, they say; “examination of the role diversity of microorganisms plays in the ecosystems of our bodies and homes should be intensified.” Invasive species find it easier to gain a foothold when the ecology is disrupted or impoverished. If what is seen to occur in larger ecological systems holds true for our own microbiome, then we are inviting pathogens by fighting all germs with too much hygiene. The good microbes can keep the bad ones from invading.
Microorganisms also form their own ecosystems. So far, more than two hundred thousand species are known to live in human dwellings as well as on and in human bodies. Bacteria in human dwellings account for half of these, and thousands of bacteria live on our bodies. In addition, there are around forty thousand species of fungi in our homes, although these are less likely to be found on human bodies.
“Pathogens in our environment are comparable to invasive species in nature,“ says ecologist Nico Eisenhauer. “If you transfer the findings from large habitats to the world of microbes, you have to expect that our habitual use of disinfectants and antibiotics actually increases the dispersal of dangerous germs because it interferes with the natural species composition.“
The Hygiene Hypothesis
There are indications this principle holds true for the microbiomes in our bodies and homes. The diarrhea-causing form of Clostridium dificile, for instance, finds it harder to gain a foothold in a species-rich microbial community. Babies inoculated with safe forms of Staphylococcus aureus in the nose and navel seem to become resistant to the harmful varieties. And guess where dangerous bacteria can find a home: in the metal shower heads where chlorinated water is used.
In any case, only a relatively small proportion of the microorganisms in our environment actually causes disease. This also applies to insects and other arthropods, usually regarded as pests in flats and houses – especially spiders. As hunters, they provide important ecosystem services by exterminating mosquitoes, bedbugs, cockroaches and house flies, which can actually transmit diseases. “We just have to let them be,“ says Robert Dunn.
It may be hard to resist stepping on every spider in the house, but pick your enemies with care: the alternatives could be worse. The basic principle is that ecological richness and balance is healthy. The authors of the paper in Nature Ecology & Evolution still recommend washing our hands, and mandating thorough scrub-downs and gloves for surgeons. This does not violate the principle, though, because hospitals—with their strict hygienic requirements—harbor some of the worst antibiotic-resistant germs. You don’t want those inviting themselves into a surgical cut. For recovering patients, some hospitals provide outdoor garden settings that promote healing in physical and mental ways, getting the patient away from the sterile halls and rooms. In fact, many doctors recommend getting the patient back home as soon as possible.
Figure 1 in the paper shows situations at home where a healthy diverse microbial ecology helps protects us against disease. Undoubtedly, spending time outside in healthy ecological settings, like forests and parks, can assist in healthy living. While it’s desirable to have a relatively clean home, we don’t need to commit bacterial genocide. Avoid killing germs indiscriminately with antibacterial sprays, wipes and soaps. Let the children play outdoors. Have the courage to get down and dirty—in moderation.
If you expected our headline to launch a tirade against evolutionists, sorry to disappoint you. Speaking of evolution, the scientists said almost nothing about that. It wouldn’t help their hypothesis anyway. There is no origin of species in this discussion. The members of the ecology are already present, even the so-called “invasive species.” A working ecology shows marks of intelligent design. Bible believers know that in the original ecology created by God, everything was made within Days 2-6, and every species interacted harmoniously. The trouble started after sin.