Old wives’ tale. Rubbish. A little dirt never hurt anyone.
Your parents probably think that. And certainly their parents did.
Life was different back then. No mobiles. Only two stations on the telly. Central heating only for the rich. No 4x4s to take you to school.
Not like the old days
Yeah – and your parents’ parents’ parents had no hot water, no bathroom, only an outside loo. You did your business on the long drop in the freezing cold.
Washing your hands was a mission back then. Put the kettle on, fill the basin – just to wash your hands? Wipe them off with a damp cloth, stop wasting gas. Nobody ever got ill from it.
Yeah, right. They just died a lot earlier.
But you’ve got to admit, they were pretty hardy.
Their metabolisms were different is why. But not like they were Martians or we are aliens. Their bodies were exposed to wider environments – more outdoors, hands on, getting down and dirty. They grew up with it, their bacteria growing accustomed to it, it was the norm.
Are we aliens?
Wait a minute. Their BACTERIA?
Sure, sure. In those days they never knew it, but all human bodies are full of bacteria, whole colonies growing on our skin, in our mouths – and most especially, in our gut. More than 100 trillion of them, outnumbering our own human cells 10 to 1. A human microbiota that is more microbial than human – perhaps we ARE aliens after all.
OK, so these bacteria don’t just sit there. The body outsources all kinds of functions to them – digesting food and breaking out its nutrients, powering our immune systems, providing the muscle for tissue repair.
Yeah, there’s bad guys in there too – harmful pathogens that could bring us down. Small in numbers though, and smart enough to keep quiet. One false move and the good guys will either fight them or eat them.
Note that word smart.
Adapt and survive
Exactly what bacteria are. Because these remarkable creations are able to adapt and change to new conditions faster than anything else on the planet. Twenty minutes can breed a whole new generation – with new strengths, new skills, generating advanced enzymes to meet the new challenges.
Dirt in the system? They grew up with it, recognised it, know how to deal with it. Food not properly washed or cooked? No problem – they came from a long line of heroes with cast-iron stomachs.
Yeah, they knew upsets, what gut problems were really like. Where do you think names like Montezuma’s Revenge, traveller’s dysentery, Delhi belly, or back door sprint came from? They just manned up and ignored it, the stuff of Empire-building. “No guts, no glory” was how they lived.
Our own stomachs are more sensitive – not just from different lifestyles, the food we eat is no longer the same. Take norovirus – until 1968, it didn’t exist. Named after an outbreak of acute gastroenteritis at a school in Norwalk, Ohio, it’s now every cruise ship operator’s nightmare.
The double-edged sword
Didn’t they eat the same food back then, same as 100 years earlier? Wasn’t beef, beef – and pork, pork? We’re not SO different.
Yeah, but what about antibiotics? Our food is NOT the same.
In 1928, Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, but it took till 1942 to develop it, the first patient being treated for streptococcal septicaemia. By 1950, antibiotics were motoring big time – not in medicine, but in agriculture. To bulk up animals for market – beef, lamb, pork, chicken – all the popular meat types.
Today, half the antibiotics in use world-wide are in food production – 63,151 tons in 2010, to rise by 67% in 2030.
Half a century of industrial-scale usage means that traces of antibiotics are now in all of us – directly from the food we eat, and from the recycled waste. Even vegetarians will find them in their systems.
Use and abuse
It gets worse. Because antibiotics have been overused in medicine too. The miracle cure-all, patients clamour for it for everything from minor ailments up. By the time they’re 20, the average teenager might have been prescribed with antibiotics at least 10 times.
And have you any idea what antibiotics do to the human system?
Sure, they clobber harmful bugs – if they haven’t already become resistant (we’re coming to that).
And how do they do this?
By killing bacteria.
Er… But that means us, doesn’t it? Aren’t we 90% bacteria?
Yes we are. So you can imagine the effect of antibiotics in the gut with over 100 trillion bacteria all round – like a thermo-nuclear bomb.
OK, so they take out the bad guys – clobber them to nothing. But a lot of innocent bacteria get hit too. Dead or impaired, no longer able to fulfil their vital roles. Collateral damage.
Ever been on antibiotics and you’ve had side effects?
Stomach cramps? Vomiting? Diarrhoea? Hello, clostridium difficile.
And that’s just for starters.
Oh sure, the immediate side effects are not too bad – the medics’ perspective of course, probably not yours.
But every treatment tears into your bacteria community a little more. The bounce-back is a little less each time. A little less, a little less – you and your children and your children’s children. Fifty years of antibiotic onslaught and our microbiota are not anywhere near the same.
The balance has shifted – all of a sardine we face uphill we’ve never faced before, even a generation ago. Our bacteria is different, different breeds with different behaviour, our immune systems are different, our bodies are different.
Some blame it on diet, on lifestyle, on health and fitness levels – but messing with our bacterial balance is probably more the root cause than any other.
Where does our body balance start? As we’re starting to discover, in our gut. And we’re more sensitive than we were. After fifty years of bombardment, absolutely on a hair trigger.
Why suddenly obesity – a major chunk of the population overweight? Where from Type 2 diabetes, like it’s becoming an epidemic? We’ve messed around with our bacteria – and now we’re paying the price.
But bacteria adapt remember? They change to meet all challenges. Which is why they’re becoming resistant, mutating to cope with this continual onslaught.
Clostridium difficile? Staphylococcus aureus? They’re both impervious to antibiotics without getting clever – and you can bet they’ll find a way to get round being clever too, before too long.
Back to basics – soap and water
All of which comes back to washing your hands, believe it or not.
We’re not the same as we were – our systems are different, our defences are different and our resilience is different. We can’t take chances with random bacteria like our grandparents used to – see how quickly norovirus or something strikes as soon as our hygiene gets forgetful.
And what? If you get sick, you want to take antibiotics for it?
Already the docs are aware so many antibiotics don’t work. And the underlying damage has been done too. So if you do get ill, there ain’t no medicine for it, you’ve just got to take your chances.
Which means don’t get ill in the first place. None of us can afford to.
But there’s still one thing we can do – and it works.
Wash your hands.