Put Away That Antibacterial Soap! Bugs are Good for Babies

Health & Wellness on 07.09.12
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Two reports in the scientific literature caught my eye this week. One study found a link between pets and healthy babies. Another identifies bacteria that help regulate the human appetite, and guess what? Less than 6% of American children host these bacteria now, down from over 80% two or three generations ago. Antibiotic resistant super-bugs aside, there are good reasons to relax and let a little dirt into your kids' lives.

Baby's Best Friend?

Researchers in Finland asked moms to keep a diary of pet contact and illnesses, in an attempt to find out how dogs and cats affect babies in their first year of life. They found that children with dogs at home had fewer ear infections, fewer respiratory infections, and needed less treatment with antibiotics. In fact, babies that had daily contact for not more than 6 hours per day with the family dog were the healthiest of the bunch. This interesting finding could be explained by the fact that dogs that spend a good part of their day playing outside bring more dirt or a broader range of bacteria into the house, challenging the infant immune system to develop more quickly. The stronger immune system can then successfully fight off the "bad bugs" that leave your sweet little one howling in pain or coughing pitifully.

This explanation rests on what is called the "hygiene hypothesis" -- the idea that our immune systems need some dirt to learn how to react correctly. This includes learning not to over-react which leads to allergies, as well as learning to keep us healthy by attacking the causes of illness.

In the study published in Pediatrics, Eija Bergroth and colleagues report that contact with both cats and dogs may have protective effects. While it is not proof of the hygiene hypothesis because pet owners may be healthier for reasons other than exposure to dirt that dogs drag in, it adds to growing evidence that too much cleanliness can be the greater danger.

Bacteria and Obesity

The June issue of Scientific American features what scientists are learning about the bacteria in our bodies. In the wake of the astounding findings that bacteria in and on our bodies outnumber our own cells by 10 to 1, scientists are increasingly finding that these so-called "good" bacteria are not merely passengers, but actively participate in our bodily functions.

If you eat "pro-biotic" yoghurts or other foods, you may already realize -- or have at least experienced -- the importance of bacteria in our guts to good digestion. And while it makes sense that microbes might help pre-digest some of our food, which helps us better absorb their nutrients, most scientists did not suspect that these bacteria influence the command centers in our bodies -- we like to think we are in control.

Not any more. Dr. Martin Blaser, an expert on the bacteria H. pylori, has found that people with this bacteria in their guts have a lower level of the hunger hormone after eating. Thus, people hosting H. pylori feel satisfied after a meal, and people without H. pylori still feel hungry.

Unfortunately, after decades of widespread use of antibiotics, the anti-hunger bacteria have been almost wiped out of human intestinal systems. Fortunately, doctors are getting the message: another report this week shows declining prescription of antibiotics for childhood illnesses. As the evidence in favor of our microscopic friends grows, we need to reduce antibiotic use in factory farming, get over the hand-sanitizer mania, and get the antibiotics out of so many household cleaning products.

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