Thursday, December 19, 2013

How Clean Is Too Clean?

There is no doubt that good hygiene is an important part of a healthy lifestyle. Improvements in hygiene, access to clean drinking water and regular access to a variety of foods were the most important elements that improved our health and longevity in the last 100+ years. Although these were not always concerns in the past, they became issues as a growing proportion of the human population began to live in an urban environment. These factors did more to improve our health than all of the "advances" of modern medicine combined. The only medical advancement that comes even close is the development of antibiotics. Although antibiotics continue to be mostly over-used and misused, their contribution to reducing the number of people who die from acute infections can not be denied.

Today it's hard to believe that until fairly recently doctors who advocated good hygienic practices were once ridiculed and marginalized by the mainstream of their profession. Times have certainly changed, but consistent with human nature we have now swung too far to the other end of the spectrum. In recent decades we have developed a neurotic obsession with cleanliness and fear of microbes that is detrimental to our health and the environment upon which depend. These days it is very common for people to poison their bodies, homes and workplace with toxic cleaning products, antibacterial personal hygiene products, and others. I am even finding it increasingly difficult to buy clothing that isn't "antibacterial" or "antiodour". These products are coated with antimicrobial substances such as triclosan , or silver or copper nanoparticles. These substances are absorbed through our skin and wash out into the environment. In both cases they are associated with some pretty detrimental effects (for example, see

Nanoparticles are the rage these days. They are showing up in many products that we use and consume. They are virtually unregulated and we know almost nothing about what they do in our bodies and the environment. Among the few things we do know is that they can be absorbed through our skin, they accumulate up the food chain, and we are beginning to see deleterious effects of these substances on living organisms (for example: see

Nanotechnologies are just one of the latest in a long history of our failures to adhere to the precautionary principle. Industry is creating new technologies faster than we can keep up with and there is insufficient regulation to manage their risks. In the corporate run consumer society that we have created, these things will be released into our environment in millions of ways long before we have even a fraction of understanding about what they do to living organisms in the short-term, never mind the next seven generations. As is typical, some people are making a lot of money while in the long run society and the biosphere pay the price!

Elecampane root (Inula helenium) primarily helps our immune system to respond to pathogens rather than directly attacking them.
It also contains prebiotic constituents that promote the growth of friendly bacteria in our respiratory and digestive tracts.

One of the problems with the mainstream medical reductionistic interpretation of the discovery of disease causing microorganisms was that microbes became the bad guys. In reality, infectious microorganisms are just the tip of the iceberg and focusing medical interventions at that level is a completely superficial approach. Life is much more complex than that. From an holistic perspective we need to get to the root of why someone is getting sick in the first place. This has more to do with what we eat, and how and where we live than what pathogens we are exposed to. On a daily basis we are exposed to millions of potentially pathogenic microorganisms without necessarily getting sick. In addition, there are trillions of microbes that live on our skin and the surfaces of the mucus membranes that form the lining of our internal organs. The number of microbes that live on and in us actually outnumbers our body cells by an approximate ration of 10:1! This is possible because these organisms are much smaller than our body cells. In many ways our body is more like an ecosystem than a distinct entity. Recently microbiologists have begun to refer to the organisms that live within and on us as the human microbiome. It is an ecological niche that is part of us and we are part of it. These populations of microorganisms that live with us form an interface between our bodies and the rest of the world. They work together with our immune system and the epithelial cells of our skin and mucus membranes to help create an environment that is mutually beneficial for both us and them (for example see: and

In this world everything is interconnected and has its place in the larger whole. By using microbes as a scapegoat and going at them with guns blazing we have been able to conveniently avoid the real issues which are what we eat and how we live, and our antimicrobial obsession is actually contributing to the underlying problem. Not only are we poisoning ourselves and the environment with all of our antimicrobial products, but these products indiscriminately kill other microorganisms as well. Most of the microbes that we come in contact with on a daily basis are either benign or beneficial in most circumstances. However, the antimicrobial products that we use don't discriminate between beneficial microbes and those that are potentially harmful. When we kill off a lot of the symbiotic microorganisms that live on and in us with things like antibiotics and hand sanitizers we alter the human microbiome in ways that creates an environment less able to support friendly microorganisms and the health of the cells of our body surfaces. The friendly microbes actually help to keep the potentially pathogenic microbes in check, both directly by competing with them, and indirectly by creating an environment that is less conducive to their growth and cooperating with our immune system to aid its functioning as well. When we disturb the balance of the microbiome, we inadvertently create an environment that is more supportive to the proliferation of the unfriendly microorganisms and less supportive of the health of the friendly microbes and our body tissues.

In the last couple of decades scientists have finally begun to study the human microbiome and a growing body of very interesting research is accumulating. What they are finding is that there is a strong relationship between the population of microbes that live on and inside us and our general health. They are also finding that, just as our muscles need a certain amount of stress (exercise) in order to improve their strength and endurance, so does our immune system. Like all organs in our body, our immune system needs a healthy amount of stress in order to develop and function properly. To much stress will overwhelm it, but too little stress will also weaken it or lead to other kinds of dysfunction. When we look at life, the ecosystem and our body from an holistic perspective, this makes perfect sense and it's been a fundamental principle of the natural healing paradigm for millennia. But when scientists approach the world from a linear reductionistic perspective it is difficult to see the multifaceted connections between things. These can only be seen if we take a step back and look at the bigger picture.

Immune tonics such as the fruiting body of hemlock varnish shelf (Ganoderma tsugae) help to normalize our immune function
and reduce excessive inflammatory responses such as those associated with autoimmune conditions.

More recently, some medical researchers are finally coming around and realizing that it's time to try and figure out what most of the microbes out there (other than the ones that are causing diseases) are doing. Not surprisingly, they are finding that a healthy microbiome is essential to our health in many ways. This is extremely important if we are looking at health from an holistic perspective. I have discussed this from a number of angles in previous posts and no doubt will again in the future. However, another important trend that is emerging has to do with our relationship to pathogenic organisms. There is a growing body of research that indicates that by reducing our normal exposure to pathogenic microorganisms as a result of increased levels of sanitation, it is basically screwing up our immune system and contributing to the development of many chronic inflammatory illnesses such as allergies, asthma and other autoimmune conditions. What this research indicates is that the greater the level of sanitation in a country, the higher the incidence of these kinds of conditions. This has led to the development of the "hygiene hypothesis", which basically states that exposure to a broad range of pathogens is necessary for the normal development of our immune system. Without this exposure our immune system develops with less of an emphasis on responses that are intended to fight infection and a greater tendency towards immune responses that promote inflammation (for a detailed explanation of the hygiene hypothesis see: One unfortunate consequence of this is that it seems to be one of the factors that have resulted in women more commonly suffering from autoimmune conditions than men. Some researchers believe that this is because in our society we encourage young girls to be cleaner than young boys (see:

Although there is still some resistance among many medical researchers to accept these findings, a relationship between hygiene, sanitation and chronic inflammatory conditions is being demonstrated for a growing number of conditions. Some of the more recent associations include type 1 diabetes (see: and Alzheimer's disease (see:

The moral of this story is that, although good hygiene is an important part of a healthy lifestyle, too much emphasis on hygiene can be just as detrimental as not enough. To address hygiene in the context of a healthy lifestyle there are a number of principles that need to be kept in mind:

It is best to avoid the use of toxic cleaning products, cosmetics
and other personal hygiene products.

It is best to only use natural household cleaning and laundry products, cosmetics, soaps, etc., and avoid the use of chlorine based products and synthetic disinfectants. Many of these products are easily absorbed through our skin and some are even toxic if inhaled. It is also best to avoid chlorinated or brominated water: we don't want to drink it, swim in it, or bathe in it. This means that if our household water source is chemically treated municipal water, we should invest in a decent water filter for drinking and a shower filter for showering and bathing. All of these products are toxic to the environment, our body, and they disturb the balance of microorganisms that live in and on us.

Garden thyme (Thymus vulgaris) essential oil is an excellent antimicrobial that is a common ingredient in
natural hand sanitizers. It can be added to home made natural cleaning products as a disinfectant.

"Antimicrobial" and "low odour" clothing and personal hygiene products
are best avoided even if they are "natural".

"Antimicrobial" or "low odour" clothing are best avoided for reasons that I stated above. Hand sanitizers are unnecessary and often contain toxic ingredients such as triclosan. Even natural hand sanitizers such as those with antimicrobial essential oils are not recommended. Research has indicated that these products are usually no more effective than plain soap and water, but they are potentially a source of toxicity and both synthetic and natural hand sanitizers disturb the balance of bacteria on our skin. That being said, periodic use of natural hand sanitizers in circumstances where soap and water are not immediately accessible is OK. We also need to be a bit more cautious when we are travelling in distant countries because the strains of microbes will be different there, especially in warmer climates where there tends to be a broader range of parasites. Once more, soap and water are still the best option, but it doesn't hurt to bring a natural hand sanitizer for situations where it isn't possible to wash our hands.

It is best if we practice moderation with regard to personal hygiene.

A good natural soap and water is the best way to clean our skin. Antibacterial soaps are not recommended. Soap is itself naturally antibacterial. However, too much soap and water is also not good because it will also disturb the natural balance of our skin microbiome and it strips the natural oils from our skin making it drier and more prone to injury and infection. The truth is, most parts of our body do not require soap unless they come in contact with something that is oily or associated with a high risk of infection (like dead animal tissue). Over most of our body surface the primary thing we need to remove is sweat. Most of our sweat is water-soluble, so rinsing with water is sufficient and soap unnecessary. Although water alone will not remove excess sebum (the oily secretion that lubricates our skin), if some parts of our skin tend to be on the oily side, toweling dry is sufficient to remove the excess oil. Using soap in these areas will temporarily remove too much sebum and in the long run stimulate our sebaceous glands to secrete more sebum thereby making our skin even more oily.

There are a few exceptions. Water alone is insufficient to wash our hair. It is best to use a gentle, natural shampoo, but don't use so much that your hair is "squeaky clean". It is best to leave some of the natural oils in our hair. It is also preferable for most people not to shampoo their hair more than every other day. In the long run, the more we wash it, the oilier it gets.

Another exception is our armpits which contain lots of apocrine glands that secrete a different kind of sweat that includes fatty components. It is the metabolism of these substances by bacteria that produce odour as our sweat is pretty much scentless. Because of the fat content of these secretions, water alone is insufficient to clean these areas.

Our anal region is another area that requires washing with soap due to the presence of fecal matter. However, our genital region is very sensitive and it is best not to use soap in this region. This tends to be an area where people are more obsessive and tend to overdo it. The disturbances of the skin microbiome in this area of our body that result from using soap and water and other personal hygiene products (when used) is one of the contributing factors to the development of fungal or bacterial infections of the vagina. Rinsing with water and toweling dry is good enough in this region of our body.

Our hands and feet are the last two areas that require soap and water. This means that when we shower, aside from shampooing our hair, the only areas of our body that require soap are our armpits, anal region, hands and feet. Rinsing with water and toweling dry are good enough and preferable for the rest of our body. It is also important that we make sure that the skin in areas of our body with folds and creases is properly rinsed and toweled dry because these areas tend to be moist and can be breeding areas for unfriendly microorganisms if sweat, sebum and dead cells are allowed to build up.

Good clean water is the best thing for washing most of our body most of the time.

The last thing that needs to be said here is that showering or bathing in chlorinated water is bad news. Not only does it disturb the balance of our skin microbiome, we can absorb chlorine into our body through our skin and by inhaling it. Once it is in our body it reacts with organic substances forming organochlorides which are very toxic. This means that it is best to only shower or fill our bathtub through a good shower filter that removes chlorine. Also, bathing in general isn't recommended even if we eliminate the chlorine from the water. It just isn't a good idea to sit and soak in dirty, soapy water, even if we shower afterwards to rinse off. Bathing is particularly problematic for women because the chlorine and soap in bath water will enter their vagina and disturb the balance of vaginal microbes making them more susceptible to vaginal yeast or bacterial infections. That being said, relaxing in a warm bathtub with some essential oils is a great way to reduce stress as long as there is no chlorine or soap in the water.

Be clear and calm, not paranoid.

A friend of mine once told me that she was becoming so concerned about pathogens in our environment that she was afraid to touch door handles and shopping carts. I told her that next time she felt that way she should lick the door handle and feel good about it and she'd probably be less likely to get sick! Although I was being somewhat facetious, I was also partly serious. I walk into a local supermarket these days and there is a hand sanitizer station at the entrance so that people can disinfect the handle of their shopping cart. Then there's bottles of hand sanitizer at the checkout so that people can disinfect their hands after handling money. I see the same kind of thing in a lot of public places. Of course, we are now expected to goop on the hand sanitizer before entering a hospital as well. The irony is that the microbes that we are bringing into the hospital are usually a lot less of a concern than the ones that are already there. Hospitals are breeding grounds for super microbes that are resistant to most of what we can throw at them. This is mostly because of the over use and misuse of antibiotics and chemical disinfectants. Hand sanitizers are one of the things that are contributing to the development of these organisms.

A few years ago I heard an interesting radio interview with a respected microbiologist. He was discussing the issue of how our society has gone overboard in our war on microbes and mentioned hand sanitizers as an example. He said that people would be better off washing their hands with yogurt than hand sanitizers because the bacterial culture in yogurt will compete with any potentially pathogenic organisms on our skin and help to maintain a healthy microbiome instead of disturb it with toxic antiseptics. He was making a point, of course. He wasn't advocating that we wash our hands with yogurt.

The bottom line is that exposure to microbes is a normal part of life. Most of them are benign, many of them are beneficial, and some of them are pathogenic. Under most circumstances our microbial community and our immune system will keep them in check. Even if we do get sick occasionally, periodic infections, as long as they are not really serious ones, are good stress for our immune system just like regular exercise is good stress for our muscles, cardiovascular and respiratory systems. The best thing we can do is be healthy in body, mind and spirit. Eating well, regular exercise, a moderate level of hygiene, reducing stress and exposure to toxicity, and a good attitude in life are our best protection. It will help to ensure that our immune system and our body as a whole are strong and healthy. If we aren't healthy, no amount of sanitation, hygiene or toxic products are going to keep us from getting sick.

Valerian root (Valeriana officinalis) is a great friend when fear and anxiety get the better of us!

Unfortunately, it's easy to succumb to fear. On one side we have reductionistic medical practitioners stuck in their narrow linear world view. On the other side we have more fear being propagated by various industries trying to sell us a multitude of antimicrobial products. And then we have the media sensationalizing everything in order to get our attention. To a large extent they are more of the problem than the microbes that they want us to fear by distracting us from the real causes of illness (what we eat and how we live), encouraging us to poison ourselves and our environment with all kinds of toxic products, and by promoting fear, for fear has one of the most powerful negative affects on our health and well-being, and more specifically our immune function.

In my life I eat pretty well most of the time, exercise fairly regularly, avoid toxic products as much as possible, don't let stress get the upper hand most of the time, and follow my heart and live my life to the fullest. I follow the guidelines that I outlined above when it comes to hygiene. I also don't worry about microbes. I take necessary precautions when it is required, but when I consider it to be required is far less often than most other people. For instance, I have no problem hugging or kissing people who are sick. I don't freak out if someone coughs or sneezes near me. I'm also not the least bit concerned about touching money or surfaces in public places unless there could be some kind of chemical contamination (even here I don't get stressed about it, I just avoid it as best I can). I wash my hands with soap if I'm digging in the soil, after I have a bowel movement (soap isn't necessary when we urinate because urine is water soluble), after I pet one of my dogs (for an interesting related article on dogs see: or any other animal if they are stinky (but not if they're relatively clean), if I possibly come in contact with animal feces or rotting animal tissue (which can happen when one of my dogs rolls on something nasty), if I touch raw meat, or if I get something oily on my hands. I rarely wash my hands before I eat because mostly I'm just touching things in my local environment where all of the microbes are already a part of me. However, I'm a bit more cautious when I'm travelling and potentially coming in contact with strains of microbes that I'm not used to.

Although some people might be shocked at my relaxed attitude to pathogens, I am strong and healthy and almost never get sick. That being said, I am not advocating that everyone do what I do. I know what my body can handle and what my limitations are. This is not something new for me. I have lived this way for 35 years. Each of us has to make our choices in accordance with our current level of health and circumstances. We can wash our hands as much as we want (with natural soap and water) and don't have to kiss people with the flu. What we do need to do is stop poisoning ourselves, live well and do our best to not live a life governed by fear.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you Michael for the article. You have articulated well what I believe and practice. I think people use cleanliness as a shield not just from germs but criticism and to provide proof that they are perfect. If my house is House and Garden clean, my body is scrubbed and rubbed with scented creams, my children are washed frequently and taught to be afraid of germs then I am a good person.