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Are We Too Clean?

Our hygiene obsession has damaged our microbiomes. Here’s what you can do to improve things.

person in a mask with sanitizer

Disinfectant wipes, sanitizer, antibacterial hand soaps—we’ve become accustomed to using all of it throughout the last year. But some of our disinfectant practices are probably unnecessary and may actually be harming our microbiomes—the billions of bacteria and other tiny creatures that live on us, and in us.

The reality is that, even before the pandemic, many North Americans were probably too clean for their own good. It’s a symptom of contemporary living to equate hygiene with health. While good hygiene helped to prevent infectious diseases like cholera and polio, it seems society has swung too far in the other direction—especially since the onset of the pandemic. Certain germs are dangerous to our health, it’s true. But germ exposure overall remains important to the proper functioning of our immune systems. If we don’t expose our bodies to a healthy mix of germs, we create a higher probability of developing inflammatory diseases like asthma, hay fever, certain allergies, psoriasis and inflammatory bowel disease.

Being hygienic enough to stay safe, while ensuring one is exposing oneself, and one’s family, to the proper mix of germs, can be tricky. So recently I interviewed one of the world’s experts on the healthy functioning of the microbiome, the University of British Columbia microbiologist Brett Finlay, the author of The Whole-Body Microbiome and Let Them Eat Dirt. Finlay cautions against letting the disinfectant behaviours that we developed during the pandemic become permanent habits. During non-pandemic times, Finlay’s hand-washing rule is simple: “I generally say soap and water before dinner, but lay off the hand sanitizer. All it does is kill the good microbes on your skin.”

In addition, Finlay suggests limiting the use of antibacterial disinfectant inside the home and using antibiotics only when absolutely necessary. The inflammation that can result from an unhealthy microbiome, Finlay says, has been associated with the development of non-communicable illnesses, like cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s and even some cancers. For example, according to Finlay, people who were born via C-section have a 25 percent higher chance of getting asthma and a 30 percent higher chance of being obese—because they weren’t exposed to the same microbes associated with vaginal delivery.

It’s not all bad news, though. A few simple techniques can help boost the health of our microbiomes. Here are some of Finlay’s most effective tips:

  1. Diet matters. The best way to promote the health of the microbiome, according to Finlay, is to follow a healthy diet. A Mediterranean-style eating pattern is best—one that’s low in fat, dairy and sugar, but full of fruits, vegetables, legumes and fish. Fermented foods are also beneficial as they introduce probiotic bacteria and enzymes into bodies, enhancing both our digestive and immune systems.
  2. Get outside. Think about it: When’s the last time you got dirt under your fingernails? Or sat in a patch of grass? Even before COVID, we spent more time sitting in front of our computers than we did outside. But in addition to providing strong mental health benefits, the great outdoors naturally exposes us to essential microbes. Start a garden, let your kids roll around in the park and don’t be afraid to get dirty.
  3. Embrace your community. Everyone’s microbiome is unique. To ensure that yours is sufficiently diverse, spend time around other people—so that their germs intermingle with yours. According to Finlay, the mixing with other members of the community is especially important for elderly people, to introduce young microbes into their microbiomes and promote healthy aging.
  4. Stay active. Physical activity can actually increase your anti-inflammatory microbes, which helps lower your risk of illnesses like heart disease, inflammatory bowel disease and rheumatoid arthritis. You don’t have to start running marathons, but keep looking for ways to incorporate more movement into your life.
  5. Don’t worry about probiotics. Finlay doesn’t encourage the use of probiotic foods or supplements. The products that are on the market tend to promote a single strain of bacteria, he says, such as lactobacillus or bifidobacterium, which don’t survive for long in the human gut. “It’s like taking a penguin and putting it in a desert and asking it to survive,” Finlay says. “They just don’t.” If you’re seeking ways to use diet to promote healthy microbes, Finlay suggests trying fermented foods, or just eating a healthy and diverse diet.

If you’re struggling to find the best mix between hygiene and encouraging a healthy microbiome, remember this: Before the pandemic, the top 10 causes of death featured only one communicable disease: Influenza. The rest were non-communicable diseases, such as heart disease and cancer, that can be encouraged by the inflammation that results from an unhealthy microbiome.

Finlay sums it up best. “We just [have to realize] that we’ve impacted our microbes and that there are things you can do to help them,” he says. “Because they’re your friends and they’re going to help you down the line… Maybe just sit back, enjoy life, play with the kids, go outside, eat well and you’ll add a decade to your life.”

Seeking help to use diet as a way to promote a healthy microbiome? Learn about Medcan’s Nutrition Programs, and call 416.350.5900 for an appointment.

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