It’s not an uncommon sight these days to see people with small tubes of antibacterial hand sanitizer dangling from their purse, keychain, or backpack. (In fact, you might even carry one with you each day.)
And we all probably have at least one friend that we’d confidently call a “germ-o-phobe.”
But where did this compulsive fear of germs come from, and are germs really a proven danger to our health?
The philosophy that took over modern medicine hundreds of years ago and eventually led to the hyper-cleanliness phenomenon we see today is call germ theory. Germ theory was first proposed in 1546 in Italy, and was later popularized by Louis Pasteur (heard of pasteur-ized milk?) in the 1850’s.
Simply put, the concept behind the theory is that the human body is normally a sterile field, and germs invading from outside the body—whether from air or surfaces the body comes into contact with—are what cause disease.
In investigating microorganisms as the cause of disease, Pasteur became famous for proposing that humans “catch” bacteria, viruses, and fungi and therefore the spread of them should be prevented and the organisms should be killed using drugs, vaccines, and other methods.
What isn’t often discussed about the now-famous scientist is the fact that, even though germ theory became the scientific norm, it was always a hotly contested idea, and the challenges to it were never fully answered.
The Case Against Pasteur’s Germ Theory
At the same time that Louis Pasteur was analyzing microorganisms and giving public demonstrations about germs in France, another rising scientist named Antoine Bechamp was researching and developing a totally different “germ theory”, and the two men came to represent strong opposing views in the scientific community that have lasted to this day.
Bechamp’s own germ theory was called the Terrain Theory, in that the human body is the terrain (or environment) for the micro organisms and an unhealthy body will attract microorganisms to come and take advantage of the weakened tissue. He believed that organisms change to adapt to their environment, and therefore the conditions within which a microorganism live in a human host—the “terrain”—are the actual cause of the disease, not the mere presence of the microorganism itself.
There are many glaring differences between the two germ theories.
First, Pasteur believed that diseases arise from organisms outside the body, while Bechamp believed that diseases come from micro-organisms inside the body.
Another primary difference between them was that Pasteur believed that micro-organisms themselves are the primary cause of disease, while Bechamp stated that deteriorated conditions within the human host are the origins of disease.
While Pasteur stated that every disease can be traced back to a particular microorganism, Bechamp instead thought that every disease can be traced back to a particular condition within the human’s body.
But Hasn’t Science Already Proven Pasteur’s Germ Theory?
Yes and no.
It has never actually been proven beyond any reasonable doubt that germs (aka microorganisms like viruses and bacteria) are the only true origin of disease, to the exclusion of other causes.
While Pasteur did prove that in order to defend against some diseases one must create defenses against them such as vaccines and medication, Bechamp also proved that to prevent diseases in the first place one must first build up the body’s innate health.
Some modern scientists say that, in fact, both Pasteur and Bechamp were “right” about germs. Microorganisms can be both disease-causing and beneficial, depending on the health of the host.
But if it’s true that bacteria aren’t all bad, then why is there still such an emphasis in modern medicine placed on “hygiene”?
But Are All Bacteria Actually “Bad”?
Being regularly exposed to germs and bacteria is not actually a bad thing. It’s important to have a balance of both in order to build our body’s resilience as well as supporting healthy digestion, which requires many kinds of bacteria to work properly.
You’ve probably heard it said that the human body is host to nearly ten times the number of foreign bacterial cells as human cells, and those cells play an important role in maintaining balanced health in your body.
One study at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston found that mice exposed to a greater number of bacteria types actually had a more robust immune system and were more capable of fighting off potential diseases than mice who inhabited an over-sanitized environment.
Additionally, a new wave of research is supporting the concept that our gut microbiota are critical to maintaining our overall health, and that the bacteria in our gut are part of metabolic processes that benefit both the host and the organism. Total avoidance and eradication of these vital microorganisms is counter-productive to the healthful processes they instigate in the body.
The “Hygiene Hypothesis” (Or How Our Germ-phobia May Be Contributing to Allergies, Asthma and More)
Modern research is finally catching up to the negative effects of creating an over-sterilized culture, and the results are sobering. The American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology notes that rates of allergies, learning disabilities, infections and inflammatory bowel disease have only continued to increase in recent years, despite better hygiene practices.
In our rush to be free of every germ imaginable, we’ve wiped out so many important microorganisms that a new theory, called “hygiene hypothesis” is now being written on by scientists finding that this germ-free vacuum may actually be contributing to the exponential rise of autoimmune conditions like allergies and asthma.
Research is showing that early exposure to germs is actually a good thing, and builds up a resilient immune system that is stronger in the long run.
Are You Keeping Yourself (and your family) TOO Clean?
So how does all of this historical context about germ theory affect you?
One common cultural phenomenon that stems from the Pasteur version of the germ theory is avoidance of dirt and an obsession with “cleanliness.” Unfortunately, this has created an unhealthy separation between modern man and the microorganisms and minerals that are so important for us all to come into contact with for balanced health. You can take steps today to increase your interaction with natural sources of balanced bacteria by spending more time getting dirty—literally! Working in your garden with bare hands, spending time walking unshod on natural surfaces like dirt trails or leaves, and consuming fermented foods rich in probiotics to repopulate your gut flora. All of these things can improve the balance of microorganisms in your body.
Another way this broader understanding of “germs” may impact your choices is in the health care providers you choose to connect yourself with. Do they have a very limited, Pasteur-centric view of germs and “cleanliness?” Do you receive recommendations to use antibiotics on a frequent basis without any discussion of their harmful side effects and potential resistance development? These might be signs that it’s time to find a health care provider that is more concerned about the wellness of your body and a healthy balance of good bacteria in your system, than they are about eradicating microorganisms from your body without also considering the possible costs.
Other simple changes are to ditch the “anti-bacterial” soaps in your home, and stop using hand sanitizers (If you just can’t let that one go, there are some great castile-based options out on the market that don’t kill off all the bacteria but still leave your hands “cleaner.”).
We know that the origins of disease can be a very personal and sensitive topic for many of you, so we want you to know that we’ve tried to present multiple sides to this issue. Perhaps, like my husband, you wear a white coat in a hospital each day and due to policy you must use hand sanitizer every single time you enter and exit a room. Or maybe you care for an immunocompromised loved one and spend your waking hours preventing anyone with a cough coming within a 20-foot radius of them.
We get it—the issue is complicated. And we respect your views.
We are NOT suggesting that you stop washing your veggies (salmonella is no joke!) or that you quit bathing (for everyone’s sake, please don’t do that!), or avoid taking prescribed medications.
Our goal here is simply to present information that the broader medical community has neglected to share in a balanced way, and encourage each of you to be your own health advocate. Do your research, and find ways to maintain as much balance in your body as possible, with the understanding that some of these tiny micro organisms are essential to each of your body’s functions.