Archive for the ‘Immune System’ Category

The importance of good hygiene for good health

Wednesday, July 1st, 2009

There is no doubt that a crucial but often over looked natural way to prevent illness is good hygiene. It is important to wash your hands regularly and keep your living and working environment as clean as possible and the feature below will give you all the good hygiene rules you need to protect your health and the health of your family.

Hand washing

Hand washing is a simple habit — one that requires minimal training and no special equipment. Yet it’s without doubt one of the best ways to avoid getting sick. This is because throughout the day you accumulate germs on your hands from a variety of sources, such as direct contact with people, contaminated surfaces, foods, even animals and animal waste. If you don’t wash your hands frequently enough, you can infect yourself with these germs by touching your eyes, nose or mouth. And you can spread these germs to others by touching them or by touching surfaces that they also touch, such as doorknobs, towels and taps.


Infectious diseases that commonly spread through hand-to-hand contact include the common cold, flu and several gastrointestinal disorders, such as infectious diarrhoea. Inadequate hand hygiene also contributes to food-related illnesses, such as salmonella and E. coli infection. According to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention in the US, as many as 76 million Americans contract a food-borne illness each year. Of these, about 5,000 die as a result of their illness. Others experience the annoying symptoms of nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea.


Keeping your living and working environment as clean as possible

If you don’t keep your living and working environment as clean as possible you can also infect yourself with germs. This does not mean creating a sterile environment, as exposure to germs is part of life, but the risk can be minimised by following the suggestions below:


Kitchen hygiene

Although the kitchen sink harbours 100,000 times more germs than a bathroom or toilet, most people consider the later to be the most contaminated part of the house. To keep your kitchen as hygienic as possible:


– Wash hands thoroughly before touching food. This is even more important after having touched a pet or used the toilet. Use waterproof plasters to cover cuts.

– Make sure that the sink and surrounding areas are cleaned regularly.

– Keep the fridge at a constant temperature of between 0 and 4°C and clean it, as well as cupboards, as often as possible. Put raw meat in a dish or on a plate.

– Always check that cleaned surfaces such as worktops and fridges are thoroughly dry before putting food down.

– Wash and disinfect the bin and the area around it (in case of spatters). Bins contain high concentrations of bacteria so it is important to empty them every day and to wash them regularly.

– Towels and cloths and sponges used in the kitchen should be changed frequently and always washed carefully. The survey mentioned previously showed that, while one in three people changes them every day and 57% at least one a week, 21 million Europeans (7%) only change kitchen linen if it is really dirty or when they think of it.


Bathroom hygiene

The warm and damp atmosphere of a bathroom encourages bacteria growth. Soapy water loaded with bodily bacteria collects in thin layers on the surfaces of the shower, the bath and the shower curtain. If the curtain is made of fabric then it may be machine-washable at a low temperature.

Face flannels are popular, but their almost constant humidity makes them an ideal breeding ground for germs. As a result, they should be changed regularly and be preferably made from thin material that dries quickly.


Handy tips

– Clean and disinfect baths, sinks and toilets regularly

– Don’t forget doors, handles, toilet rims and taps

– Hang towels up to dry after use

– Give each family member their own towel

– Air the room regularly to help disperse steam


Dust mites

House dust is a significant source of allergens (substances responsible for causing allergic reactions in some people) of which dust mites are the most important. Dust mites are tiny animals, invisible to the naked eye, which live in fabric, wool and feathers. Dust mites love heat and humidity. They eat the tiny bits of skin that humans shed every day (desquamation). They are often found in pillows, woollen blankets, cuddly toys, etc. Dust mites are found everywhere, even in really clean houses. By reducing their numbers, or containing their presence, allergic reactions become less severe or non-existent. There are several ways of dealing with dust mites, which are often best combined:

          washing at high temperature, i.e. above 55°C 

          controlling their development by reducing the humidity and heat in a room so that dust mites find it hard to survive and multiply

          reducing the areas of fitted carpets in a home.


Clean work surfaces

Good hygiene is just as important at work as it is at home and the same rules apply. Clean work surfaces regularly paying particular attention to objects, such as telephones, water coolers and so on, that are used by large numbers of people. In fact, a growing body of research suggests that computer mice and keyboards are prime breeding grounds for germs. In January, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that a norovirus outbreak, at a Washington D.C. elementary school that sickened more than 100 children, may have been spread through contaminated computer equipment.


Other research has detected a host of different, potentially disease-causing germs on everything from doorknobs to light switches to lift buttons to petrol pumps.


E coli infection

Taking the above precautions in your living and working environment, in particular the kitchen, can have a dramatic impact on your health. Food poisoning hits the headlines when people come down with salmonella poisoning from eating at the local fast-food outlet. But still, about 20 per cent of the yearly millions of cases of food-borne illness start in the home, where you have complete control over the cooking and cleaning.


Food-borne infections – illnesses spread through food or beverages – occur when micro-organisms (such as bacteria, viruses or parasites) enter your gastrointestinal tract, causing nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps and diarrhoea. In 1982 the bacteria E. coli became a household name after dozens of people became sick from eating E. coli O157contaminated hamburgers at a restaurant. Since then, most E. coli O157 infections have been traced to eating undercooked ground beef.


Knowing how E. coli is spread, what foods may carry the bacteria, and how to handle your food safely can help you avoid getting sick. Undercooked, contaminated ground beef isn’t the only source of E. coli O157 infections. You can also get sick from consuming contaminated dry-cured sausage, salami, undercooked roast beef, chicken, fish, poultry, unpasteurized milk, apple juice and apple cider.


Once the harmful types of E. coli enter your body, they attach to the cells lining your intestine and begin to multiply. As the bacteria grow in numbers, they release toxins that damage the lining of your intestine, causing cramping and diarrhoea. Protect yourself by taking proper food safety precautions. For example, never eat undercooked or uncooked meat or poultry. Always wash any kitchen surfaces that have had uncooked meat on them, not just to protect against flu but also to protect against other things that can make you sick, such as salmonella bacteria. Separate raw meat from cooked or ready-to-eat foods. And don’t use the same cutting boards, knives, or utensils that are used on uncooked meats on other foods.


Proper hand-washing techniques

Good hand-washing techniques include washing your hands with soap and water and apparently singing two verses of ‘Happy Birthday to You’ to time yourself that you have washed them for long enough. 


Antibacterial soaps have become increasingly popular in recent years. However, these soaps are no more effective at killing germs than are regular soap and water. Using these soaps may even lead to the development of bacteria that are resistant to the products’ antimicrobial agents — making it even harder to kill these germs in the future. In general, regular soap is fine. The combination of scrubbing your hands with soap and rinsing them with water loosens and removes bacteria from your hands.


Follow these instructions for washing with soap and water:


          Wet your hands with warm, running water and apply liquid or clean bar soap. Lather well.

          Rub your hands vigorously together.  

          Scrub all surfaces, including the backs of your hands, wrists, between your fingers and under your fingernails.

          Rinse well.

          Dry your hands with a clean or disposable towel.

          Use a towel to turn off the tap.  


When should you wash your hands?


Although it’s impossible to keep your bare hands germ-free, times exist when it’s critical to wash your hands to limit the transfer of bacteria, viruses and other microbes. So, always wash your hands:


  • After using the bathroom
  • After changing a nappy — wash the nappy-wearer’s hands too
  • After touching animals or animal waste
  • Before and after preparing food, especially before and immediately after handling raw meat, poultry or fish
  • Before eating
  • After blowing your nose
  • After coughing or sneezing into your hands
  • Before and after treating wounds or cuts
  • Before and after touching a sick or injured person
  • After handling rubbish
  • Before inserting or removing contact lenses
  • When using public toilets, such as those in airports, train stations, bus stations and restaurants.


Children need clean hands, too. You can help your children avoid getting sick by insisting that they wash their hands properly and frequently. To get children into the habit, teach by example. Wash your hands with your children and supervise their hand washing. Place hand-washing reminders at children’s eye level, such as a chart by the bathroom sink for children to mark every time they wash their hands. Tell your children to wash their hands for as long as it takes them to sing their alphabet or Happy birthday twice. This works especially well with younger children, who may rush when washing their hands.


Hand washing is especially important for children who attend day care. Children in day care are at greater risk of gastrointestinal diseases, which can easily spread to family members and others in the community. To protect your child’s health, be sure your day care provider promotes sound hygiene, including frequent hand washing. Ask whether the children are required to wash their hands several times a day — not just before meals. And make sure the sink is low enough for children to use, or that it has a stool underneath so that children can reach it. Note, too, whether nappy changing areas are cleaned after each use and whether eating and nappy areas are well separated.


To sum up hand washing doesn’t take much time or effort, but it offers great rewards for you and your family in terms of preventing illness. Adopting this simple habit today and encouraging those you care about to do the same is a powerful way to help protect your health.

The hygiene hypothesis: are we too clean?

Wednesday, July 1st, 2009

Now this might seem a strange article to follow the one entitled ‘The importance of good hygiene for good health’, but it is always crucial to strike a balance so that we don’t go too far in living in almost a sterile environment. 

The common belief that has driven medicine, as well as public perception and hygiene practices, is that when we get sick it’s because of something we ate, or inhaled, or were exposed to in other ways. The hygiene hypothesis, however, points in a different direction, proposing that in many diseases it is a lack of exposure to the “bad guys” that causes harm.


Increased hygiene and a lack of exposure to various micro-organisms may be affecting the immune systems of many populations – particularly in highly developed countries like the US and UK – to the degree that individuals are losing their bodily ability to fight off certain diseases. That’s the essence of the “hygiene hypothesis”, a fairly new school of thought that argues that rising incidence of asthma, inflammatory bowel disease, multiple sclerosis and perhaps several other autoimmune diseases may be, at least in part, the result of lifestyle and environmental changes that have made us too “clean” for our own good.


The hygiene hypothesis suggests that it is the more hygienic ones who are more susceptible to autoimmune diseases. The argument is – though we don’t yet have proof of it – that the immune system needs some kind of hardening, some kind of resistance in order to function optimally.


While the evidence is by no means clear-cut, some studies show that children who lived on farms when they were very young have a reduced incidence of asthma, which has led several researchers to conclude that organisms in cattle dust and manure may be the stimuli that their immune systems needed to fight off asthma. Other research found that ultra-clean children were more likely to suffer from eczema and/or wheezing than children with less hygienic habits. The more hygienic the child, the more likely he or she was to be affected.


Supporters of the hygiene hypothesis have not proposed that “playing in the dirt,” or making society less hygienic in general, are useful goals in medicine. But they do propose that to keep the immune system working properly, you need controlled stimulus or else it doesn’t know how to recognize the bad guys.


So, are we too clean? Research is definitely pointing to dirty kids being healthier kids, and growing up to be healthier adults. Dirt, it seems, isn’t always dirty, and bacteria isn’t always bad. Getting obsessive about cleanliness and sterilisation and keeping children ultra clean isn’t recommended, but this doesn’t mean hygiene isn’t important. Once again a balanced approach seems to be the answer. As long as you wash your hands at appropriate times and keep your living and working environment as clean you can but don’t get obsessive about it, you’ll be getting the balance about right. Life, after all, is for living, not for cleaning.

Ask Marilyn: How can I prevent cold sores?

Monday, June 1st, 2009

Q: I’ve recently had a bad cold sore, accompanied by a fever, swollen glands and general fatigue. It cleared up after about a week but it was horrible and I want to know what I can do to prevent it happening again?

A: Cold sores are caused by the herpes simplex virus, which is often caught in childhood. After the first attack many people never have another or are only affected occasionally, but some do have recurring bouts of cold sores. Attacks typically become less severe with time as the immune system builds up resistance, but the virus can be reactivated when you feel stressed or run down. Over exercising, sun burn, lack of sleep or extreme temperatures can also contribute.

To avoid another attack you need to suppress the virus as much as possible. Foods high in the amino acid arginine encourage herpes to reoccur, while those high in lysine help limit the virus. So reduce your intake of arginine rich foods, such as chocolate, nuts and gluten grains like wheat. Sadly, berries also have a high ratio of arginine to lysine so eat these in moderation too. Don’t cut them out altogether as, like nuts and grains, they are nutritional superstars – just don’t go overboard when you eat them. Oily fish, soya, live yogurt, goat’s milk, papaya, mango, apricots and cheese are all good choices as they have a high ratio of lysine to argine. You can also take lysine to help prevent cold sores recurring. Use 500mg twice a day and overtime you may be able to decrease it to just once a day to keep attacks at bay (if you can’t find lysine locally then go to the Resources Page).

It’s also important to build up your immunity. Avoid refined sugar, which lowers immunity. Caffeine and alcohol undermine liver function by limiting its ability to deal with the by-products of this virus, so cut down or cut these out. A daily vitamin B complex will help boost immunity, as will additional 15mg zinc supplements and 1000mg vitamin C with bioflavonoid supplements. The herb echinacea can help bolster your immune system too. Available in tincture and capsule form and as a tea, echinacea has been found to possess powerful antiviral and immune-boosting properties.

Take steps to reduce stress. After an infection, the virus can remain dormant and be reactivated when your immune system is sluggish, or when you are under physical or emotional stress. Yoga is an incredibly powerful way of helping your body learn how to relax and rid your mind of anxious thoughts.

And finally, too much exposure to the sun increases your risk of developing a cold sore. Don’t worry, that doesn’t mean you need to hide indoors during the summer months, instead simply apply sun block to your lips and face before prolonged exposure to the sun to help prevent an outbreak.