Picking Your Way to a Better Immune System
Our culture is a little obsessed with cleanliness, especially when it comes to our children. Everywhere we go, we are reminded to wash our hands or cover our mouths when we cough. We’re quick to call the doctor and the number of vaccines we give our children is at an all time high. All kids seem to do it, so it’s no wonder that we all cringe when we see our child with their finger up their nose. In fact, you’ve probably found yourself discouraging your own child on more than one occasion. But, we’ve got to ask: is picking your nose (and eating it) really that unsanitary or just gross?
Today’s post questions if there are any real health benefits to picking your nose.
A few years ago, several medical professionals proposed to study the theory that picking your nose (and subsequently, eating it) would somehow boost your immune system. In short, these professionals wanted to follow the idea that evolution has given mucus a sugary taste, making it a convenient and tasty snack for children that can also help boost their immune system.
While an interesting theory, nothing really came of these studies other than a lot of media attention. In fact, one of the main responses to this theory was that we ingest our nasal mucus all the time, although we don’t typically do it on purpose.1 So, there is no scientific evidence that eating boogers has any health benefit. End of story.
Well, not so fast.
Picking your nose is just one of many gross behaviors that our children engage in that we, as parents, try so hard to avoid; and manufacturers have been quick to capitalize on our obsession with cleanliness. From grocery cart covers to boogie wipes and everything in between, when did we become so scared of a a little dirt? As a result, it’s quite possible that our kids are too clean.
All of the soap dispensers, hand sanitizers and wipes are potentially robbing our children from being exposed to germs that can strengthen their immune systems. And THAT is where the real discussion begins.
What is the Immune System?
The immune system is our body’s #1 defense against infectious diseases, organisms and other invaders. Made up of a network of cells, tissues and organs that work together to protect our bodies, the immune system is designed to attack organisms and other substances that invade our body and cause infectious disease. That system serves two main protective roles:
- Produce antibodies to block dangerous single-cell organisms called microbes from invading your body’s cells, while driving allergic responses to the foreign organisms. Our immune system relies on these antibodies from birth to protect us.
- Assault infected cells throughout your body. This part of immune system grows stronger with every harmless microbe encounter or exposure to infection.
While no parent would consciously expose their child to infection, the immune system doesn’t have a chance to do it’s job if we keep our kids in a bubble. In fact, recent evidence indicates that the increase of routine vaccinations in our children has contributed to the emergence of chronic allergic issues such as eczema, asthma and ear infections, as well as autoimmune deficiencies.2
A Little Dirt Won’t Hurt!
At birth, we are born with antibodies that protect us while our immune system strengthens itself. Unfortunately, “according to the ‘hygiene hypothesis,‘ the problem with extremely clean environments is that they fail to provide the necessary exposure to germs required to ‘educate’ the immune system so it can learn to launch its defense responses to infectious organisms.”3
If we never allow ourselves or our children to be exposed to viruses, dirt, germs or the like, we prevent our immune system from activating it’s natural defense team. As a result, many parents who are overly cautious are completely blindsided when their child gets sick. And they are really shocked when they send their kid to kindergarten and they stay sick all year from the over-exposure of germs all at once.
So, if you buy into the “hygiene hypothesis,” (and we think it’s worth consideration) trying to keep your home and everything you interact with (read: ditch the shopping cart cover) overly sterile could actually increase the risk of acute and chronic diseases. Yikes!
While we aren’t suggesting you start encouraging your child to lick the toilet seat, we are saying that by dialing back your cleanliness, you can help increase your body’s and your child’s body’s natural immune responses. Here’s a few ways to “pick” your way to a better immune system without picking your nose:
- Allow your kids to play outside and get dirty! Resist the urge to sanitize everything they may touch before allowing them to play.
- Ditch the antibacterial soaps and any other antibacterial household products that erase “healthy” microorganisms your body needs to be exposed to in order to develop and maintain a strong immune system. Instead, use simple soap and water.
- Avoid unnecessary antibiotics. Antibiotics only work on bacterial infections, so if your child has a viral infection, allow their body to naturally fight the infection.
- Buy locally grown or organic meats that do not contain antibiotics. Actually, buying as many REAL organic products as you can (in lieu of GMOs and processed foods) is your best bet, but don’t be fooled my fancy packaging that claims to be organic.
- Make educated decisions about the use of vaccinations.
- Relax if you catch your kid picking their nose. It’s really not the end of the world.
With all of that said, as long as you’re careful, picking your nose and eating it, while gross, isn’t harmful. On the other hand, being obsessed with cleanliness can cause real damage. So, lay off the hand sanitizer and get dirty!
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