Thursday, April 15, 2010

not all germs are bad

Guest post by Toxic Free NC volunteer Andrea Restle-Lay, Moderator of Five Points of Raleigh CSA

Not all germs are our friends, it’s true, and they can turn into true enemies. It’s no wonder H1N1 swept us all into a panic!

I’ve heard lots of stories over the years: a neighbor has MS; my high school friend has celiac disease (a.k.a. gluten allergy); friends and relatives die of cancer; schoolmates started suffering sudden, life threatening peanut allergies and asthma; my own son picked up a cold which turned into an odd, barking cough that went on forever and was impervious to medications. My own research has shown that all these issues may be related to hyper-immunity, or the body’s immune system turning against itself. But why? What is wrong with everyone’s immune system all of a sudden?

One explanation comes from the Hygiene Hypothesis, developed after a failed experiment in Germany in the late 1990s. Dr. Erika Von Mutius hypothesized that children who grew up in poorer East Germany would be more likely to have asthma and allergies than those in wealthier West Germany. In fact, after reunification she discovered that exactly the opposite was true – children in East Germany were less likely to have asthma and allergies! So she developed a new theory – the hygiene hypothesis - that a child’s early contact with dirt, animals and other children exposes them to many microbes and allergens, and this helps their immune systems develop strong and healthy.

There has been much debate in the scientific literature since that time about the validity of this idea, and how exactly it works. There is such a thing as a good germ – in fact, there are billions of good bacteria at work in all of us, helping us to digest our food properly, heal from skin wounds, and more. Overdoing it on the antibacterial soaps, cleaners and sanitizers, not to mention antibiotics, may kill off too much good bacteria and throw our bodies out of whack. What’s more, antibacterial ingredients added to many household products are actually pesticides, with toxic effects on our health and on the environment. More about that in a previous blog post.

Opponents of the hygiene hypothesis point to inner-city populations in the US. Living in more crowded housing and spending more time in daycare should mean higher exposure to germs and lower risk of asthma and allergies for inner-city kids, right? But no, rates of asthma are in fact much higher than for other American children. However, inner-city kids may also face a lot of other exposures that increase their risk for respiratory illnesses – things like diesel exhaust, industrial pollution, and pesticides. Diet may also play a big role.

Some good sources to check out on this issue include:

Jessica Sachs’ Good Germs, Bad Germs: Health and Survival in a Bacterial World

Dirt’s good for kids from the Chicago Tribune

So what can we do as parents to raise healthy children free of immune diseases AND the flu?

  1. Educate your children’s immune system every day by exposing your children to plenty of environmental nuances - (non-poisonous) backyard plants and flowers, fields of weeds and wildflowers, get a kiss from a neighbor’s well-behaved dog, investigate some bugs, pick up some earthworms. Feed your kids local honey every day after they reach one year of age. Let them get dirty and make mud pies in the backyard.
  2. Wait to serve solid food until six months. Start with low allergy risk foods like sweet potatoes, oatmeal and apples but avoid things like eggs and nuts early on.
  3. Flood those little bodies with healthy antioxidants to help their immune systems remain strong, especially after a cold or vaccination when young immune systems are most likely to overreact. A delicious organic berry and local honey yogurt smoothie or even chicken vegetable soup can do the trick!
  4. Join a Local CSA farm and feed your family a variety of fresh, local, organic fruits and vegetables, serve uncooked foods when you can and visit the CSA farm so your kids can play in their dirt, too. (The photo above is of two very happy kids in the dirt at Killen Farms in Pittsboro, NC - courtesy of Jennifer and Jason Killen.) Take your children to the Farmer’s Market and let them try free samples whenever you can. Look on for resources nearby.
  5. Don’t use pesticides around children! No matter what you think about the hygiene hypothesis, know that the same argument does NOT apply to pesticides and other toxic chemicals. Children are more sensitive to health damage from pesticides and many other pollutants than adults are, so it’s extra important to keep their environments toxic-free. Try natural methods instead - you can get some ideas for least-toxic pest control methods from Toxic Free NC’s website.
You’re still allowed to make your children wash their hands when they get home from school, though, because not all germs are good germs, either!

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