Germs are bad, right? Actually, it’s not so simple.
Doctors, public health figures and parents everywhere have long taught us to banish dirt and bacteria from our homes and bodies by all means necessary. But it may be time to put down the Purell.
Growing evidence in support of the “hygiene hypothesis” suggests that exposure to a wide variety of bacteria builds and maintains strong immune systems and robust health—in babies, older children and even adults.
So what can you do? You don’t have to (and shouldn’t!) forgo all your cleanliness habits to enjoy the benefits of a little more bacterial diversity. Here are five not-so-icky ways to get a little cozier—and maybe a little healthier—with dirt and microbes:
1. Spend Time With Animals
Cat fur and puppy slobber might actually boost human immune systems. We already know that children exposed to cats and dogs in their first year of life enjoy greater protection from allergies.
Now, researchers from the University of Arizona are investigating whether living with dogs can positively affect the population of their adult owners’ gut bacteria. Think of it as probiotics from your puppy, and another reason to snuggle up with your furry friends.
2. Hand-Wash your Dishes
Hold the ultra-hot wash! A 2015 study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics finds that within families who hand-wash their dishes most of the time, children aged 7 and 8 suffered from fewer incidences of eczema, asthma and hay fever.
Why is this? The researchers think that the trace microbes left behind after hand-washing help train the immune system not to overreact to common allergens. And while this particular study didn’t track the effect of hand-washing dishes on adults, other studies have found that adults and children benefit similarly from microbial diversity.
3. Eat Fermented Foods
Lovers of live-cultured foods often refer to the process of fermentation as “controlled spoilage,” and for good reason: sauerkraut, yogurt, kefir and kombucha age under specific conditions that favor probiotic bacteria over the kind that could make you sick.
Probiotics like lactobacillus and bifidobacteria, commonly found in fermented foods, confer a range of benefits, from healthier teeth and gums to improved digestion, urinary health and even resistance to the common cold.
4. Don’t Bathe Every Day
More than 70 percent of Americans shower every day, which is roughly average compared to the habits of people worldwide. But a slightly more lax hygiene habit might improve the health of your skin, and potentially your overall health, as well.
“Good bacteria are educating your own skin cells to make your own antibiotics,” Dr. Richard Gallo of UCSD’s dermatology division told the New York Times. “They produce their own antibiotics that kills off bad bacteria,” he added.
Of course, washing your hands after using the bathroom and before you eat and prepare food is still prudent. But you might discover that forgoing a full-body scrubbing for a couple of days might yield smoother, softer and healthier skin.
5. Garden with Bare Hands
Soil teems with bacteria, and some of it may be good for our mental health. Researchers have identified a common soil-dwelling bacterium called M. vaccae, which may stimulate the release of serotonin, a neurotransmitter responsible for a positive mood.
Soil bacteria also reduces sensitivity to allergens in children and adults. So the next time you go outside to pull weeds, don’t be afraid to get a little dirt under your fingernails.