In the U.S, there is an “anti-bacteria” epidemic, and it’s really scary. Everywhere you go, be it college campuses, public transport, grocery stores, the post office, and obviously, hospitals and doctor’s office, there is anti-bacterial hand sanitizer sitting proudly on display. You may be thinking…wait, what’s so bad about things like Purell, anti-bacterial hand soap, sprays, wipes, etc? It’s not so much that these items are “bad”, it’s that they are misused.
There is a time and place to use anti-bacterial products, for example if someone coughed on a door handle and you touched it after. Or after you use the bathroom, and there’s no soap. Or after using gas pumps, which are incredibly dirty. Do you know someone who sprays their hands constantly with hand sanitizer? Someone who feels the urge to wash their hands multiple times a day, just because they “feel” dirty? Maybe someone obsessed with cleaning all of the time? I’m writing this post because me, yours truly, I was that person. I was a case study of a germaphobe.
I’ve written about this before, but back in high school, I struggled immensely with my mental health, particularly obsessive-compulsive disorder. This terrible condition basically took over my life and I felt like I was at the mercy of this disease. My social life crumbled, my relationships became strained, and worse of all, I started to hate myself. I had “checking” OCD, but I also had another form, which was that I was a germaphobe. I carried hand sanitizer bottles with me at all times. I washed my hands over twenty times a day, even when they were not dirty, but I just felt like I should wash them. Every time I touched a door handle, an elevator button, a public computer and so on, I would whip out my hand sanitizer and spray my hands thoroughly. I was essentially obsessed with being “clean.” I’m not really sure what was driving this impulse, but it was really frustrating to deal with, and my friends started to notice. I would literally keep hand sanitizer in my jacket pockets, so when I was out, if I touched a door handle I would spray my hands right away. One of my friends said to me once that it wasn’t good to be constantly disinfecting myself all of the time, and I just brushed it off, but she was right.
Let’s talk about bacteria, and why it is so important for good health and a strong immune system.
Bacteria exists everywhere, and have been around since the beginning of time. Our bodies themselves are full of bacteria. For example, many types of bacteria colonize in our gut, and these bacteria make copies of themselves so bad bacteria do not grow. Bacteria is what help break down our food and digest it properly. There are 100 trillion bacteria inside of our digestive system that make up the gut microbiome. Bacteria in our gut is critical for helping our immune system, and giving us the feeling of actually feeling full after we eat a meal. This study found that probiotics had a huge impact on college students immune system, showing that bacteria can actually help us feel better internally by boosting our immune system.
But bacteria gets a bad rep. Why is this? It is because in America, there is a fear of bacteria, so everything needs to be sterilized. This explains all the billion dollar cleaning companies and products, hospitals and doctors’ offices being super sterile, etc. Obviously, sterilization and being clean is important for basic hygiene and to prevent the spread of highly infectious diseases, but for someone who is healthy, going out of the way to avoid bacteria 24/7 is actually going to negatively impact that person’s health. I am a good example. During the years I was a germaphobe, my immune system was terrible. It’s ironic really, because half of the reason I was such a germaphobe was to prevent catching some kind of illness, but this actually had an opposite effect. By constantly killing off bacteria on my hands, I was making my immune system prone to constant infection. Then I would take antibiotics, my gut would become further depleted, and the whole cycle would repeat over and over.
What should we do, then?
- Try to avoid antibiotics unless extremely necessary. There are natural antibiotics out there such as oregano, garlic, and echinacea. Antibiotics are essentially like a forest fire to your microbiome. They kill off everything-the good and the bad. Antibiotics are very important for life-threatening conditions and have allowed for so many amazing medical advances, but if you are taking antibiotics for every single condition you have, there is going to be serious damage to your microbiome that is irreversible.
- Don’t be scared about touching public surfaces and stop spraying your hands so often. This study found that a New York City subway had over 15,000 different kinds of microbial life but showed that the majority of bacteria in the subway was harmless and even beneficial to humans. Bacteria also dies quickly so, bacteria from your hands will even last until you next wash your hands.
- Eat lots of fermented food to introduce bacteria into the microbiome. Take a high quality probiotic, drink apple cider vinegar diluted, and drink kombucha.
- Touch dogs and flowers and grass. Go to public places and don’t be scared to touch things! Also, try to do outdoor workouts without shoes on! This works great if you already have a fear, because you force yourself to get over the fear of touching public things. I’ve come to learn that the only way to truly get over a fear, is to face it head on.
I hope some of this advice was helpful! Remember, not all bacteria is bad. Healthy bacteria is actually what helps our bodies thrive, so try to get lots of it!