The connection between obesity and your household cleaner
Have you heard of the Hygiene Hypothesis? It is a research-backed theory that being exposed to moderately ‘unclean’ conditions, i.e. conditions that aren’t 100% free of microbes, can be good for building immunity and maintaining the essential natural balance in microbes on and inside our bodies. Introduced by Professor David P Strachan, as far back as the 1980s, in the British Medical Journal, the idea stemmed from Strachan’s observation that children exposed to a wider spectrum of germs had fewer instances of hay fever. Thanks to the early exposure, it probably helped build an immune system and an inner mechanism to fight infection because they had been exposed to germs by older siblings. This formed the beginning for research that built a case for exposure to less than 100% clean conditions as a way to build children’s immunity and lower their susceptibility to bacteria and virus led disease.
However, based on the hygiene hypothesis and recent findings, the case for safer, natural cleaning addresses the dangers of hyper-cleaning that cause an imbalance in the microbial biodiversity that we can actually benefit from. The truth is, while microbes are the carriers of most deadly disease, there are also a good number of bacteria that are beneficial to have in our environment. Many of these help synthesise vitamins in our gut, for example, and enable healthy digestion. They line our skin, protecting us from harmful microbes that carry disease and infection.
A healthy degree of contact with microbes helps retain a better internal microbial biodiversity, an imbalance of which can be detrimental. The last 30 years have seen a tremendous global rise in obesity. Some studies seem to find a link between the increase in our hyper-vigilance towards cleanliness, how it affects our capacity to pick up microbes, and the rise in obesity. In September 2018, The Canadian Medical Journal Association published a study that analysed the gut flora of 757 infants between ages 3-4 months and weight at ages 1 and 3 years, specifically to observe the differences caused in exposure to disinfectants, detergents and eco-friendly products used in the home. It was seen that in households where disinfectants such as multi-surface cleaners were used, children showed lower levels of Haemophilus and Clostridium bacteria but higher levels of Lachnospiraceae, as well as a higher-than-optimum BMI, steeply increasing their propensity to obesity whereas infants in households that used eco-friendly cleaners had different microbiota and were less likely to be overweight as toddlers. As humans, our primary source for microflora is our mouths. We come in contact with bacteria of all kinds from our environment in every aspect of our daily lives, whether eating, drinking, sleeping, brushing our teeth, bathing and pretty much anything else. This ensures that we are covered in bacteria for a large part of the day – this is our natural state of being. Cleaning products, on the other hand, destroy many of these microorganisms, including some that are good for us, preventing them from reaching our guts, where they have a role to play in managing healthy digestion.
You’ve probably heard about ‘gut bacteria’. The human digestive system comprises thousands of bacteria and microbes that do the work of breaking down toxins, synthesising enzymes, producing vitamins and vital amino acids that break down food, build gut immunity and create an inner core of health and wellness. According to a study that appeared in Nature, at 3.3 million, microbial genes in our gut outnumber previous estimates for the whole of the human body. It is an imbalance in this microbial status within our systems, caused by exposure to chemicals in household cleaners that has now been linked to childhood obesity.
A common modern mantra of positive physical and mental wellness is to focus on a well-balanced gut with a good amount of healthy gut bacteria. However, increasingly, exposure to antibacterial chemicals in so many household cleaning products have ensured that this microbial biodiversity within our systems is imbalanced, due to the destruction of much of microbes, and several others that never even reach our guts.
Our current realities hold up hyper-clean, microbe-free spaces as an aspiration — a far cry from the potential promise of health that the hygiene hypothesis presents. With every cleaning product, whether for the household, bath product or garden and yard cleaners, claiming to deliver a 99.9% germs, the writing is on the wall: Microbes are terrible for you! They must be eliminated at all cost!
What’s more, the very products we administer to clean up our homes and offices, are causing us harm. Did you know that on average, we are exposed to about 62 chemicals, through contact with household cleaners, that are linked to a plethora of health issues ranging from asthma to cancer, reproductive disorders to hormone disruption and so many more? In December 2017, the US FDA issued a final ruling on a list of potentially toxic active ingredients, present in antibacterial surface cleaners and hand-washes.
Some of the most common ingredients in these cleaning products are parabens, bleach, QUATS, Triclosan, ammonia, chlorine, and triclocarban. All of these can be easily absorbed through contact, via skin, breathed in through the air we breathe and eventually, once inside the body, they act gradually, upsetting the microbial balance within.
This balance is not only crucial for our immune systems to continually learn to cope with toxins, but some of them also form vital helping roles in major body functions, such as digestion to boost metabolism, provide energy to vital organs and organ systems and ensure that we stay healthy. That’s not all. In our environment too, microbes and bacteria are responsible for decomposing a lot of the organic waste we generate, producing oxygen as a by-product and helping fix nitrogen levels in the air. Stripping our homes and our extended environment of all the microbes, in an attempt to disinfect and clean up, we have run the risk of eliminating a lot of the essential bacteria, causing a serious threat to microbial biodiversity. Several scientists believe today, that we have become ‘too clean’.