Tipping the Circle of Life

If The Lion King tells you anything, it is that you shouldn’t tip the circle of life. It happens in nature all the time, however, and things have a way of balancing itself out. Here is a case against Microban, good hygiene, and why these things can mess with the circle of life.

Scarring the City

Living in the city can be plush. We have our local Whole Foods supplying the most organic, wholesome meals. Luxuries like uber, lyft, and fast food delivered right to your door. We have electric scooters, fancy billboards, cheap thrills, and a seemingly endless supply of things to do. These things make cities an attractive place to live and thrive. It is a never sleeping ecosystem of people; what more could you ask for? And if you need some hand sanitizer on every wall, you’ve got that too. Some cities are as dirty as the slums and some are pristine like a newly opened carton of yogurt. Despite the trash and sewage that we push under the rug, modern life is exceptionally hygienic, but did you know this could be messing with the circle of life.

To eradicate microbes from the face of the earth, Microban has been employing antimicrobial products. This is effectively what our hand sanitizing stations do as well. In a densely populated city, this effort is a no brainer. Good hygiene is always better than bad, but it could very well be tipping the circle of life in a way that harms our health. Indiscriminately killing bacteria may resemble a similar situation as Scar in the Lion King, with Scar representing all the man made anti-microbials that exist in the world today. The hygiene hypothesis illustrates that having virtually no exposure to harmful microbes may cause our immune system to get bored. When immune systems get bored, there is a phenomenon called auto-immune disorders that arise from our own immune systems attacking ourselves. Another thing that occurs because of good hygiene are higher rates of allergic diseases. These represent a kind of internal self-sabotage that is occurring in city life that hasn’t ever been seen before. 

Kiss a Farmer

Contrast this with farmers and country dwellers. They know what it’s like to get out in the mud all day doing hard labour. Imagine the countless microbes they are exposed to that city folk are not. In addition to working tirelessly to make a buck, their immune systems are working double, if not triple-time. To feed the city, they also endure and possibly benefit from the dirt. Next time you have that rare encounter with a farmer, shake his hand, and do whatever you need to do to give your immune system something to work on.

Life is a Game of Trade-Offs

Using Microban isn’t the only thing depleting the number of infectious agents we’re exposed to. We also sterilize the water supply, pasteurize milk products, provide childhood vaccination, and administer antibiotics. That’s not to say that these things aren’t helping us because they certainly are. It’s just that in developing countries where they’re not used, we see higher rates of infection and low rates of allergic diseases. So modern life presents us with a trade-off: reduced infections but with higher rates of auto-immune and allergic diseases. 

Tipping the scale in favour of infectious disease to give our immune systems something to do, however, might be the worse road to go down. According to WHO, greater than 90% of all deaths in developing countries are due to infectious disease. Conversely, we have people to the tune of 23.5 million in America managing their auto-immune disease. So clearly this is a trade-off developed countries are willing to take, and rightly so. 

Microbes get a bad rap in our world. We’re always on an effort to eradicate them and make sure they don’t get within shouting distance from us. What is not known is that most microbes on Earth aren’t evolved to live in our body. In other words, they occupy the soil, water, and other environmental features well but don’t stand a chance in our body due to physical and immunological defenses like our skin and adaptive immunity. Therefore, I think the prevalent use of Scar-like microbe killers might be overkill because most microbes on this Earth can get within the bounds of a whisper and let us in on a little secret advantage to avoid auto-immune and allergic diseases. 

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