Hygiene hypothesis says we’re too clean for our kids’ good

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Want to sanitise that baby toy? Think again…

Parents worry about their kids’ health from before they are even born. But overprotecting kids from germs can have the opposite effect from the one intended.

It is the basic nature of young children to touch everything within their reach – whether it’s your pet’s food, the dish cloth or the dust in the vacuum cleaner bag.  And it’s the basic nature of parents to seize that month-old raisin that’s been hiding under the couch from their little one’s hand before it inevitably makes it into their mouth.

But have parents gone overboard in trying to protect their kids’ health?

Studies show that it may pay to think twice before reaching for the hand sanitizer every five minutes.

Hygiene hypothesis

In fact, a mounting body of research suggests that exposing infants to germs may offer them greater protection from illnesses such as allergies and asthma later in life. This theory is called “hygiene hypothesis.”

Hygiene hypothesis theorises that when exposure to parasites, bacteria and viruses is limited in early life, that children face a greater chance of having allergies, asthma and other auto-immune diseases during adulthood.

Essentially, human society has morphed and there have been radical changes to our environment; changes associated with the size of families, and moving from a rural to an urban environment. As such, we’ve moved from a situation in which we are exposed to microbes to a more sterile environment without those exposures. A good example is with asthma – most people are no longer exposed to endotoxins that are a byproduct of livestock and farms that can help build resistance.

On top of the reduction in exposure to microbes, we tend to treat every symptom with antibiotics, and our gut microflora has changed with the type of diet we eat.

Studies show that kids with older siblings, who grew up on a farm, or who attended day care early in life seem to show lower rates of allergies, at least in some part due to exposure to germs. That’s because a young immune system strengthens itself and learns to adapt and regulate when exposed to those germs. Exposure trains the infant immune system to attack bad bugs and ignore harmless things like pollen.

In a recent study, a team from the North-Western University in America discovered that children who were exposed to more animal faeces and had more cases of diarrhoea before the age of 2 had less incidence of inflammation in the body as they grew into adulthood. Inflammation is linked to many chronic adulthood illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes and Alzheimers.

Balance is the key, according to experts. Hygiene hypothesis doesn’t mean that you should cancel your cleaning routine, but instead take a common sense approach: not everything in sight (or out of sight for that matter) needs to be washed or sanitised.