When it comes to parenting, have we become too obsessed with being clean and worrying about children getting sick from all of the germs they might pick up?
Recent research shows this is detrimental to children’s health and there is a direct link between lacking diverse gut microbes to potential chronic conditions such as asthma, allergies, obesity and even healthy brain development. Is it time to put the hand sanitiser away, to let kids get plenty of time in nature even if it is the back yard dirt pile?
Leading microbiologist Brett Findlay is in New Zealand to talk about some not-so-clean habits to encourage to help immunity and to prevent allergies.
He is the co-author of Let Them Eat Dirt: Saving your Child from an Oversanitised World. A study published last year with his co-author Marie-Claire Arrieta about connecting to asthma in very young babies to missing key intestinal bacterial species was deemed a breakthrough in the field.
When we’re talking about the bacteria in the gut, there are two sources for that, isn’t there? One is diet, but what is it overall that fosters good gut health?
Diet is a major part of it because that is what the microbes eat and depending what you eat shifts it and of course your environmental exposure. For example, if you have a dog in your house we can actually tell, in kid’s faeces we can look at the microbes we can actually recognise the kid has a dog in the house and we can tell what dog it actually is. So it is environment and of course diet.
What is your message when it comes to the cleanliness of the environment and whether we have become too clean?
For last the hundred years we have been on this war to get rid of all microbes, we consider them germs, and “the only good microbes are dead microbes” attitude and we brought in sanitation, sewer, clean water, clean food, vaccines, antibiotics and frankly this has been a spectacular success in decreasing the number of people - especially kids – that die of infections.
But what we’re learning in the last five years or so is that there are good microbes and bad and our quest to get rid of all of the germs is destroying all of these normal microbes that are actually a part of us. What we have learned in the last few years is part of us plays a key role in how our gut develops, how our brain develops, how our immune system develops and now ironically as you look around at the developed countries, nearly all of the diseases that people have, obesity, diabetes, asthma, allergies, inflammatory bowel diseases, autism, the list goes on and on… these all have microbial links that we didn’t know about a few years ago.
So the message is we have a hygiene hangover, we are being way too clean, we can ease off, let kids be kids and let them acquire these microbes for their development.
I know there has been a lot of discussion about the link to allergies, but what did you find about this bacterial species and a link to asthma?
What we found is that in three-month-old babies there are four microbes in some kids but not others. The bottom line is if the kid had these four microbes in their faeces at three months of age, later in life they were protected against asthma. If they lack these four microbes, then they were at very high risk for asthma. This is the first work showing that very early in life microbes impact the disease that kicks in from anywhere from three to five years later.
If you were lacking these microbes in infancy, are their procedures to gain them later on?
I think where we are heading - and there is already a company working on this - is screening kids who are at risk for lacking these microbes and then can we make a probiotic-type supplement. So where this whole field is going is going to be looking at both kids and adults and say what microbes do you have, which ones do you not have? And as they identify the good ones, we’re going to see whole new version of probiotics 2.0 that will have certain microbes that were designed to specifically complement defects in people and help them have a healthier life.
We need to get over “the yuck factor” clearly, because a certain amount of yuck is good for us. Those four microbes that you identified the absence as being a risk for asthma, where would you find them? What is likely missing in an environment where kids haven’t got them?
While we’re on the gross subject, when you’re born, this is your biggest birthday present for your mother, you inherit both faecal and vaginal microbes and if you are born by C-section you actually don’t get these things, including these four microbes which are found in the gut in low numbers. So if you are born via C-section you have a 20 per cent higher rate of asthma and the kid’s microbes actually resemble the mother’s skin.
So there are actually vaginal microbe swabs that are being done, you pre-swab a person before a C-section and then you can then colonise a child with these vaginal microbes that are part of the more normal-type route.
Breast feeding versus bottle feeding, we know this decreases the rate of asthma by about 20 per cent and these microbes seem to be enriched in breast-fed kids. taking antibiotics is a terrible thing from a microbe point of view because they kill both good and bad microbes equally and kids that get courses of antibiotics in their first year of life, they have much higher levels of asthma, allergies and obesity because you are wiping out all of these beneficial microbes that are helping your immune system to develop.
It’s another reason to get rid of the hand sanitiser, among many reasons, including the fact that we have got microbial resistance because of the overuse of antibiotics by animals and by humans.
All the studies are showing that hand sanitisers don’t work any better and they actually work worse because you’re wiping out all of the good microbes that are normally on your hands and some of the anti-bacterials that are in hand sanitisers have now been banned by the FDA for example.
So common sense, wash your hands before eating for example and after the toilet or if they are around someone infectious, but otherwise with the kids, you don’t have to wipe their hands every three minutes.
Did I hear you say that it is possible to anticipate to ensure that a new born infant is getting access to that in another way and is that developing as a procedure?
Not commercially yet, but there is a company in the States that is working on basically defining vaginal microbes to colonise kids born by C-section. About 10 percent of women medically need a C-section, current C-section rates are around 25 percent in most developed countries, so we do it too much. But some of these women really do need C-sections. The other thing is that at least in Canada there are a lot of naturopaths who are actually doing the vaginal microbe swabs if the kids is going to be born by C-section and almost bio banking in a sense, trying to recolonize the early childhood with the vaginal microbes in the mother.