As I child, I was always outside. Whether I was biking, playing hide and seek with the neighborhood kids, jumping in puddles or making mud pies, I always wanted to be outdoors. Given my affinity for dirt and the outdoors, I was hardly ill as a child.
The staggering decrease in our overall health and resistance to antibiotics leads many to believe that our preoccupation with hyper-cleanliness may be the culprit. For decades society has been fed the lie that we must keep a constant state of cleanliness. In fact, experts believe that because the body is exposed to less microbes and germs early in life, it is causing illnesses later in life.
“Bacteria, fungi, lots of these things we think of as bad — they’re all part of our environment, and we evolved to live with them,” says Michael Zasloff, an immunologist and physician at Georgetown University Medical Center. Through exposure to these microbes early in life, your immune system learns what’s harmful and what isn’t, he says, and that readies the immune responses you’ll have for the rest of your life.
According to the hygiene hypothesis, bad things can happen if this early exposure doesn’t take place or if it doesn’t include the right microbes. The immune system can become overly sensitive, overreacting to non-threats such as pollen or dander as if they’re potentially harmful. When combined with certain genetic traits, this process can lead to conditions such as asthma and allergies, says Kathleen Barnes, an immunogeneticist at Johns Hopkins University who specializes in the genetics of asthma.
Healthy Exposure to Germs is Essential Early in Life
Introducing your immune system to common microbes and germs early in life is the best course of action in developing a stronger immune system. A 2012 study found that the farm-dwelling kids had significantly lower rates of asthma, hay fever and eczema. Scientists believe that introducing these germs early in life is the key. Researchers induced two groups of mice — germ-free (GF) mice, which are raised in a sterile environment, and specific-pathogen-free mice raised under normal laboratory conditions — to develop forms of asthma or ulcerative colitis. GF mice had more iNKT cells in their lungs and developed more severe disease symptoms, indicating that exposure to microbes was somehow influencing iNKT cell levels and making the GF mice more susceptible to inflammatory diseases.
The study also found that a lack of exposure in early life could not be compensated for by introducing the GF mice to a broader range of microbes in adulthood. Source
These tips can help you safely introduce germs to your immune system:
- Get outside. Nature is an excellent immune stimulator and being exposed in a happy, healthy way does wonders to all aspects of your child’s life. Give your child plenty of fresh air. Go for walks in the woods, country or parks. Let your child run barefoot and play in the mud.
- Quit the hand-sanitizer. Teaching children how to properly wash their hands with soap and water is the best way to keep hands clean. Moreover, many hand sanitizers are alcohol-based and could be harmful to small children – especially toddlers who constantly put their hands in their mouths.
- Change of diet. If your child has a history of ear infections, oral thrush, digestive trouble, colic, food allergies or other ongoing problems you need to look at their present diet. Certain foods such as excessive amounts of dairy, sugar, cold foods, sodas, and excessive fruits can make these problems worse. Restricted foods can be slowly re-introduced back into the diet at a later date.
- Create a non-toxic environment. Certain chemicals in household detergents and cleaners could be exacerbating childhood illnesses. Using natural cleaners would be a more proactive approach. Here are 10 products you can make yourself.
- Avoid unnecessary doses of antibiotics. Antibiotics are not always required for certain childhood illnesses. Children are prescribed excessive amounts of antibiotics for illnesses that do not require antibiotics. An example of this is ear infections. Over time, antibiotics can weaken a child’s immune system and also build up a resistance to the medicine itself. Ask your child’s pediatrician if antibiotics are the best course of action with your child’s illness. I know it’s hard watching your child suffer, but you want to ensure that you are giving them proper medical care.
Childhood is very different these days. Kids rarely venture outside and are conditioned to constantly keep clean. As well, our obsession with killing germs and bacteria has led to a generation of sick children and a sharp increase in methicillin-resistant illnesses. Knowing how to naturally increase your immune system at a young age is paramount in having a healthy immune system later in life.