Cleanliness might be next to godliness, as the saying goes, but is it also a factor in increased childhood illness? Several studies have postulated that by taking extreme measures to protect ourselves from germs, we may actually be more vulnerable to them.
One condition that has been on the rise is allergies. One study found that inner city children who were exposed to the highest levels of specific allergens and bacteria during their first year of life were the least likely to develop recurrent wheeze and allergic sensitization. This beneficial exposure is not limited to infants, either. Prenatally, a mother’s exposure to allergens also affects her child’s sensitivity to them.
In addition to a lack of exposure, overuse of antibacterial products can also be a hindrance in immune development. In fact, avoiding exposure to the lesser bugs can foster the development of more superbugs. Dr. Stuart Levy, Tufts University microbiologist, views the majority of bacteria as something that helps the intestinal tract and immune system mature. Traditional cleansers like soap and water are just as effective for cleanliness, but without the overkill effect of their antibacterial counterparts.
One of the most recent studies to come out on this topic was conducted by the Institute of Cancer Research in London. They found that acute lymphoblastic leukaemia is preventable. This rare form of leukaemia is triggered by two factors: a genetic predisposition (especially if the infant has not had the chance to develop their immune systems properly), and a common infection, such as the flu. The children who are more at risk for this usually have a history of being deprived of simple microbial exposure. They are not breastfed, are not exposed to other children through nurseries or through siblings, and are born by Caesarian section. On a related note, another study has just come out which links Triclosan, a commonly used antimicrobial agent, to colitis and colon cancer in mice. It also alters their gut microbiota.
While cleanliness is important and should still be observed, the key is to avoid overreacting to germs. Instead, we should focus on the effect of germ exposure on the microbiome. The substances produced by germs and microbes interact with our gut lining and actually train it to respond. The gut cells can then migrate to other parts of the body as needed.
While moderating illness-preventing practices can help, supplements can also help. In the case of acute lymphoblastic leukaemia, one study found that children with the disease are also low in serum zinc levels. To help boost these levels, we would recommend Zinc Picolinate, as it is the most bioavailable form of zinc. There are different views as to whether zinc can actually prevent cancer, but a lack of zinc in the body does have detrimental effects on the immune system. As already mentioned, microbes also teach the gut lining how to build immunity. There have been several studies connecting probiotics to improved immunity and overall health.
As the population embraces the incoming warm weather, we would encourage everyone—especially young children—to get their hands dirty and take full advantage of the nutrition nature provides.