if you catch your child with a finger up his nose, you probably discourage it. But could the “bad” childhood habit of picking your nose and eating it, actually be goodfor you?
A biochemist from the University of Saskatchewan has theorized that nasal mucus, or as it’s more commonly known, boogers, has a sugary taste that’s meant to entice you to want to eat it.
Doing this, he believes, may help introduce pathogens from your environment to your immune system, resulting in the building up of natural defenses.
Other experts believe this theory, which has yet to be tested, doesn’t necessarily hold water because you swallow nasal secretions every day, including while you sleep, even if you don’t eat your boogers.
Still, there’s a tendency in our modern culture to be obsessive about cleanliness, especially in children, and it could be that scolding kids for this “dirty” habit may actually be counterproductive.
Not All Germs are Bad Germs
A child raised in an environment devoid of dirt and germs, and who is given antibiotics that kill off all of the bacteria in his gut, is not able to build up natural resistance to disease, and becomes vulnerable to illnesses later in life.
This theory, known as the hygiene hypothesis, is likely one reason why many allergies and immune-system diseases have doubled, tripled or even quadrupled in the last few decades. Why does you immune system need “dirt” and germs to stay healthy?
Your immune system is composed of two main groups that work together to protect you. One part of your immune system deploys specialized white blood cells, called Th1 lymphocytes, that direct an assault on infected cells throughout your body.
The other major part of your immune system attacks intruders even earlier. It produces antibodies that try to block dangerous microbes from invading your body’s cells in the first place. This latter strategy uses a different variety of white blood cells, called Th2 lymphocytes. The Th2 system also happens to drive allergic responses to foreign organisms.
Dirt May Help Your Immune System Grow Stronger
At birth, an infant’s immune system appears to rely primarily on the Th2 system, while waiting for the Th1 system to grow stronger. But the hygiene hypothesis suggests that the Th1 system can grow stronger only if it gets “exercise,” either through fighting infections or through encounters with certain harmless microbes.
Without such stimulation, the Th2 system flourishes and the immune system tends to react with allergic responses more easily.
In other words, the hygiene hypothesis posits that children and adults not being exposed to viruses and other environmental factors like dirt, germs and parasites results in their not being able to build up resistance, which makes them more vulnerable to illnesses.
Allergies, Heart Disease and Even Depression Linked to Being ‘Too Clean’
If you’re healthy, exposure to bacteria and viruses may serve as “natural vaccines” that strengthen your immune system and provide long-lasting immunity against disease. If you don’t get this healthy exposure to germs in your environment, it may end up making you sick. Health problems already associated with the hygiene hypothesis include:
- Autoimmune diseases
- Heart disease, with one study finding that early exposure to viral infections during childhood could reduce the risk of heart disease later in life by up to 90 percent2
Even depression has been connected to early exposure to pathogens, via an inflammatory connection.3 Neuroscientist Charles Raison, MD, who led the study, said:4
“Since ancient times benign microorganisms, sometimes referred to as ‘old friends,’ have taught your immune system how to tolerate other harmless microorganisms, and in the process, reduce inflammatory responses that have been linked to the development of most modern illnesses, from cancer to depression.”
Your Immune System Dictates Whether or Not You Get Sick
If you’re looking for even further evidence that booger-eating may not be so bad after all, consider that it is the state of your immune system that determines whether or not you get sick when you’re exposed to a germ. In one study, when 17 people were infected with a flu virus, only half of them got sick.5
The researchers found changes in blood took place 36 hours before flu symptoms showed up, and everyone had an immune response, regardless of whether or not they felt sick. But the immune responses were quite different …
In symptomatic participants, the immune response included antiviral and inflammatory responses that may be related to virus-induced oxidative stress. But in the non-symptomatic participants, these responses were tightly regulated. The asymptomatic group also had elevated expression of genes that function in antioxidant responses and cell-mediated responses. Researchers noted:
“Exposure to influenza viruses is necessary, but not sufficient, for healthy human hosts to develop symptomatic illness. The host response [emphasis added] is an important determinant of disease progression.”
The bottom line? If exposure to the bacteria in your boogers can indeed help your immune system to grow stronger, then a case could be made for their consumption (or at least, for not scolding your little ones if you find them with a finger up their nose). Of course, you can get healthful germ exposures other ways, too …
How to Avoid Being Overly Hygienic
If the hygiene hypothesis is true, and there’s mounting research that it is, trying to keep your environment overly sterile could backfire big time and actually increase your risk of acute and chronic diseases. You can avoid being “too clean,” and in turn help bolster your body’s natural immune responses, by:
- Letting your child get dirty. Allow your kids to play outside and get dirty (and realize that if your kid eats boogers, it isn’t the end of the world).
- Not using antibacterial soaps and other antibacterial household products, which wipe out the microorganisms that your body needs to be exposed to for developing and maintaining proper immune function. Simple soap and water are all you need when washing your hands. The antibacterial chemicals (typically triclosan) are quite toxic and have even been found to promote the growth of resistant bacteria.
- Avoiding unnecessary antibiotics. Remember that viral infections are impervious to antibiotics, as antibiotics only work on bacterial infections.
- Serving locally grown or organic meats that do not contain antibiotics.
- Educating yourself on the differences between natural and artificial immunity, and making informed decisions about the use of vaccinations.