Cleanliness is Not Next to Godliness: It's Sheer Stupidity

This posting comes with a government health warning. All the previous advice we’ve given about healthy life style change has been securely grounded on scientific research. This item is different. It makes a suggestion for preventing unhealthy gains in body weight which at present is purely conjectural. It may be valid, but it hasn’t yet been proved. Nor has it been recognised by any of the world’s health authorities involved in the management of obesity. It builds on a simple anatomical fact. The human body supports vast quantities of bacteria, especially on the skin and

in the gut.

In fact it’s generally reckoned that the microbes we carry with us outnumber the cells in our body by a

factor of ten to one. Every one of these organisms has to be fed by its host. In this symbiotic process, calories are consumed which might otherwise be deposited in our fat stores. Most of these microscopic passengers are benign, but some give rise to serious infectious diseases. When they do, we’re forced to activate out immune systems to fight their attack. This boosts our temperature and raises our metabolic rate, which is why we feel exhausted, and invariably lose weight, after a bout of tonsillitis or septicaemia. Today we’ve adopted the crazy notion that cleanliness is next to godliness. We’re moving heaven and earth to try to create a sterile living environment. We dose ourselves with antibiotics whenever we have the slightest sniffle or cough. We take a daily shower and buy antiseptic wipes to cleanse our hands of any lurking bugs. We go to the supermarket and buy a wide range of household cleansing products containing bactericidal chemicals guaranteed ‘to kill all known germs.’ It’s now recognized that that this obsession with cleanliness is a health hazard. Doctors refer to the ‘hygiene hypothesis’, a theory which has shown that allergies arise predominantly in children who are brought up in environments which are so germ free that they do not allow them to develop a healthy immune system. They’re less likely to arise when youngsters live on farms, have pets in their home, or attend pre-school nurseries where they’re brought into contact with infection at an early age. In recent years there have been hints that the hygiene hypothesis might also be a partial explanation of the growing obesity plague.

Researchers in Japan have fed volunteers with fermented milk, fortified with the Lactobacillus gasseri. After drinking this potion twice a day for twelve weeks they lost an average of one kilogram, compared with a control group who showed no change in their weight. They became slimmer, losing an average of 1.7cm in their hip measurement and a drop of 1.5 cm in the circumference of their waist. What’s more important, scans revealed that they’d lost 4.6% of the ‘bad’ visceral fat surrounding their internal organs. In America, research carried out at the Children’s Hospital in Boston revealed that children born by caesarean section in a sterile operating theatre were more than twice as likely to be obese by the age of three as those born naturally, who are exposed to the germs contained in their mother’s birth canal. Given these hints it would seem wise to change our maxims. In future we should forget the ‘cleanliness is next to godliness’ adage and revert to the old idea that ‘a peck of dirt hurts nobody.’ This would certainly improve our immune systems, reduce the incidence of allergies, cut down the overuse of antibiotics, and maybe even help to keep us slim.

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