Are We Too Clean?

Teeming masses of bacteria are in your mouth, on your skin, up your nose and on the surface of your eye, in your stomach, deep in your bowels, and well, just about everywhere. In fact, the number of bacterial cells you harbor exceeds the count of your own body’s cells by 10 to 1.

But, as Tina Hesman Saey notes, “Don’t be too hasty in reaching for the disinfectant. You can’t wash these microbes away. Nor should you. They are for the most part friendly. So friendly that many scientists now view humans as conglomerate super organisms composed of thousands of species. Scientists have dubbed this internal flora the ‘microbiome’, a nod to the little ecosystems that have blossomed in the body throughout human evolution. These microbes are no mere hitchhikers. They’re hard at work cleaning up your insides and pumping out compounds that have all kinds of effects on health, development, and perhaps even some behavior.” (1)

It’s starting to look like clean living is breaking up some of the healthy friendships between people and microbes, contributing to disease. Ceasing to be friends with a bacterial buddy, even one that is sometimes disruptive, can have unforeseen and potentially unpleasant side effects. (1)

Truth is, we can’t handle cleanliness, it’s against our nature. This is the gripping focus of a recent book by Rob Dunn, a biologist at North Carolina State University, called The Wild Life of Our Bodies. (2)

Over the past century, we have, driven by science and medicine, pursued an eliminationist view of health. If we purify our bodies and purge the environment of threats, we will be healthier. Obviously, this quest has been hugely successful in terms of eradicating killer diseases. Less obviously, we may have taken these interventions too far. We have neglected to find out whether our bodies, shaped by millennia to cope with nature, are able to cope when much of that nature is removed. Human survival and adaptation, explains Dunn, is not just about avoiding predators; sometimes, it is vastly more efficient, even beneficial, for a body to live and let live when it comes to parasites and microbes, reports Trevor Butterworth. (3)