Antibiotic Assault

I like to consider myself a well-mannered gentleman, so there’s no easy way for me to say this: we all need to eat off the floor more. Well, I don’t mean literally, or else you’ll be questioning what journalism has come to these days that I’d be offering such uncanny advice. But it’s actually not that much of an exaggeration, considering the measures we may need to combat the host of immunological diseases that developed societies are suffering from as a result of ultra-cleanliness.

Our society has taught us that our immune systems are weak and has thus been able to legitimize artificial means of protecting us. Whether this is a scheme by the pharmaceutical companies in another bid for world domination, I’ll leave to the conspiracy theorists. But I do know that the chances of a future with increased flu epidemic and allergy incidence is anything but dwindling. In fact, I wouldn’t even hesitate to say that the 2001 film “Bubble Boy” was based on true events. The only difference between Bubble Boy and us is that at least he knows he’s in a bubble.

It seems as soon as babies are born, they’re immediately armed with push-pump hand-sanitizer bottles and are lined up to be spoon-fed cleanliness propaganda. But as if coercion wasn’t enough, cleanliness also becomes associated with fun times. I don’t know about you, but when I was a toddler my mother watched over me as a guard tower, ensuring that I sing all the way through the “Happy Birthday” song to myself before turning off the faucet. And you don’t even want to know how many times it was my birthday if I picked my nose.

We’re brainwashed into thinking that we’ll never make it in this dirty world if not for adhering to a supposedly divine set of cleanliness commandments. The result is a not-so-easily uprooted ultra-clean mentality that could probably even envision cavemen as walking around with clubs in one hand and Lysol bottles in the other.

But we have far underestimated our bodies. Perhaps it’s because our actual capabilities lie closer to the realm of what we would consider superpowers that we incredulously dismiss our capacities. Our bodies are methodological agents of change. They adhere to complex physical, mathematical and chemical principles that allow us to adapt to our environments. And do you know what the best part is? Though our bodies may undergo the most rapid and significant adaptations during childhood, the process still continues to a considerable degree for the rest of our lives. So I dare you to pick up a violin and give that nine-year-old YouTube prodigy a run for his money.

Scientists have recently learned that this plasticity, or adaptive behavior to one’s environment, is not limited to the cognitive realm. The immune system functions in a similar fashion. The dirtier your environment, the harder your immune system has to work to keep you alive and kicking, and hence the more tenacious it becomes. Imagine signing your immune system up for personal training sessions at the ARC; that’s what living in a not-so-clean environment does.

The prevalent dogma in the scientific community until recently has been that “bad” bacteria must be eradicated by any means necessary. Therefore, with little regard for innocent, nonchalant bacterial bystanders, massacring bacteria of all forms through sanitation is seen as our best bet at winning the ongoing war between man and microbe.

But something smells funny (and it’s not the bad bacteria) about this approach. By purging our environments of all microorganisms, we’re effectively allowing our immune systems to become accommodated to inactive lifestyles. There will inevitably be those days when you shake the hand of that guy who’s sniffling but you don’t have a strong enough relationship with him yet to ask if he has seasonal allergies or the flu. And when it turns out to be the latter, guess what? You’re immune system has forgotten what a good, old challenge is and you end up in bed for a week.

But science has learned from its mistakes and now actively advocates against the haphazard prescription of antibiotics that may not only hoard much of the fighting from our immune systems but also creates breeds of superbugs, strains of bacteria that show immunity despite repeated antibiotic treatments.

I want to make something crystal clear. I am not advocating that if you scrape up your knees, you should suck it up and forgo the first aid kit, assuming that your immune system has got your back. It can only do so much. But what I am arguing is that if a bite of your favorite meal falls on the floor, why not extend the five-second rule?

Faisal Chaabani is a fifth-year neurobiology major. He can be reached at fchaaban@uci.edu.