My mother always said, “You have to eat a bushel of dirt before you die.” Of course, I thought she was just joking. But it turns out she was more correct than either of us knew. Unfortunately, I wasn’t paying attention at the time. I chose instead to heed another of her favorite sayings, which was “cleanliness is next to godliness.”
I never cooked an unpeeled carrot, or an unscrubbed potato. I carefully washed and spun dry every leaf of lettuce I ate. I guess that’s where I went wrong. It turns out that the microbes present in the dirt that got washed down my drain were the very microbes my gut needed to create a strong, healthy digestive system ― where a huge portion of our immune system resides. As an adult with severe irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), I wish I’d been a little less godly.
I attended a lecture about microbes (germs) last week. Harbor-UCLA Medical Center’s chief of molecular medicine, Michael Yeaman, PhD, referred to the “hygiene hypothesis.” It is a well-researched theory that has shown that lack of early exposure to microorganisms (commonly found in dirt) contributes to the increased prevalence of allergies and autoimmune disorders today. Sometimes, bacteria are good. Being raised in an overly clean environment actually suppresses the natural development of our immune systems. Incidentally, if your mother, like mine, told you to keep away from dogs because they have germs, she was wrong about that, too. According to a study done in Finland, children raised with pets have fewer colds, half as many ear infections, and need fewer antibiotics.
Unfamiliar with this theory, but focused on prevention of the illnesses that seem attracted to me like a magnet, I jumped on the bandwagon when anti-bacterial soaps first hit the market. Thankfully, they were too harsh for the sensitive skin on my hands, so I reluctantly went back to using regular soap. I’ve always been an avid hand-washer, convinced that every cold and flu I got (and I got every one within a 50-mile radius) was caused solely by the germs on my hands. It turns out, these soaps actually work too well. In addition to washing away the viruses responsible for infectious diseases like colds and flu, they also wash away the bacteria required to communicate with our internal immune systems to keep us healthy. Even more frightening, these anti-bacterial soaps also have contributed to the growing ineffectiveness of antibiotics as our germs mutate to fight against them.
No one wants to be sick. But it’s a fact of life. With fibromyalgia, in particular, many illnesses tend to be magnified. Rarely do I get just a stuffy head and a cough, as others do. More commonly, a cold confines me to bed for a week with a fever, a sore throat and a litany of other delightful symptoms. It then takes at least two more weeks to recover my strength. Flu is even worse, of course. If I ever get one of those, I can count on recovery taking a month or more. My misery is compounded by my inability to take any symptom-relieving medications. For me, they cause intolerable side effects. The bottom line is that if I get sick, I just suffer ― and for a long time.
Knowing now that colds and flu are just as likely to be spread by droplets in the air we breathe as from the germs on our hands, we need to take every precaution available. Because breathing is not optional, the only preventive is to stop touching the susceptible areas of our body (our mouths, noses and eyes) with hands that have touched an infected surface.
In some areas of the world (Japan, in particular) face masks are worn when one has a respiratory infection or would like to avoid one. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, hand-washing is still our best protection ― just not with anti-bacterial soap. It suggests plain old soap and plenty of hot water. The goal is to remove the viruses responsible for illness, but leave enough beneficial bacteria to strengthen our immune systems.
With this year’s flu season predicted to be more severe than normal, it also makes good sense to stay away from people who are coughing and sneezing and to pay closer attention to our normal health habits. Eating healthy foods, drinking plenty of liquids, getting adequate rest and continuing a regular exercise routine also keep our immune systems healthy. When it comes to cleanliness, the general conclusion appears to be “wash your hands, not your food.”
Note: Fibromyalgia News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Fibromyalgia News Today or its parent company, BioNews Services, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to fibromyalgia.