The Zombie Apocalypse And The Hygiene Hypothesis
Have you heard of the "Hygiene Hypothesis"?
The "For Dummies" version in its most general form is basically: humans evolved in a world teeming with bacterial, viruses, and parasites. Our bodies are designed to cope with that environment, in particular via our immune system. In the last hundred years or so, the more prosperous human cultures have applied their energy, technology and resources to reducing their exposure to bacteria, viruses and parasites. Sanitation, food processing, anti microbial treatments, antibiotics, less livestock around, etc. With fewer external challenges to fight, our immune systems start to malfunction and the rate of autoimmune disorders rises.
Indeed, autoimmune disorders are much more common in the most advanced countries, and much less prevalent in the poorest countries. Admittedly, the rate of diagnosis may have something to say about this too.
I got interested in this when looking at a company that is studying the use of certain intestinal worms (that can't reproduce or live for long in humans) to treat irritable bowel syndrome, an autoimmune disorder.
Copied from a website:
"The use of helminths [worms] in the treatment of autoimmune disease is based on the belief that the immune systems of populations living in the relatively sterile environments found in developed countries with little or no exposure to parasites may develop in abnormal ways. This "hygiene hypothesis" is based on epidemiologic findings of an inverse relationship between autoimmune diseases and helminthic colonization.
The incidence of most autoimmune diseases is highest in the developed world and in temperate climates, with positive correlations noted among persons of higher socioeconomic status and high levels of domestic hygiene experienced in childhood. Conversely, for example, the incidence of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is rare in less developed countries and in persons with blue-collar jobs involving exposure to dirt and physical exercise. In contrast to the epidemiologic findings of IBD, the prevalence of helminths is highest in warm climates and in populations characterized by crowding, poor sanitation, and impure food supply. Furthermore, the incidence of IBD has increased over the past several decades, while the prevalence of helminths in the United States and Europe has steadily declined during the same time period."
The jury is still out on that particular therapy, but anyway it got me thinking. Is it really good to seek an ever more sanitary, sterile environment? Okay, the other extreme is probably not a great idea either. But perhaps more, not less, exposure to dirt, bacteria, parasites, unsanitary conditions, borderline food, and infectious diseases - collectively known as "bugs" - with appropriate conditioning, is a good thing?
This all happened to coincide with the rise of zombies in popular culture. Oh yes. Vampires are so yesterday. No, the future is not dangerously sexy fanged lovers in black silk ball gowns, but lurching tattered undead in a dusty post-apocalyptic world. Just as rock smashes scissors, a crowd of zombies will eat a vampire with no hesitation. Not that zombies hesitate for anything. They're not beset with self-doubt or angst, they just want to rend flesh. They're the punk rockers of monsterdom, the Sid Vicious and Johnny Ramone, all skull banging - err, literally - and three fingered chords - also literally.
In the zombie apocalypse, there will of course be very little hygiene. We'll be toting shotguns and scavenging food, not spraying Lysol and patting ourselves with antiseptic towelettes. Hey! Sounds like the perfect route to improved health through that little-known corollary to the Hygiene Hypothesis, the Dirtiness Deduction (TM). We may be gnawing on rusty tin cans and day-old roadkill sashimi, but by Jove we won't be suffering from irritable bowel syndrome!
To enjoy this robust good health, at least until the shotgun jams and the undead break through the crumbling door, we have to be prepared. Prepared for a world where food isn't refrigerated under ultraviolet sterilizing lights until the very verge of our lips, but where raw meat has been wrapped in a bloody cloth and carried for hours through the desert in a battered pickup truck to be stewed and devoured hobo-style with dirty hands and no serviettes at all.
Sort of like eating a bowl of nasi goreng from a fly-crusted street cart in Indonesia, or a plate of squid ceviche from a sand-blown fisherman's shack in Baja (magic times, that I've not given up hope of recapturing). Or the day before yesterday's steamed fish, left out on the counter under a newspaper (my life as a small child in a Chinese household). Or a three day old beef sub sandwich, carried in a bike jersey for 200 miles (my life even now).
My hypothesis behind all this is: so-called "unsanitary" food will not kill you. It does helps to be raised with it. If not, then to gradually work up to it. Little by little, to cast off the refrigerator and embrace the wider world of man + food + bugs. It is how we evolved, and if the Hygiene Hypothesis is generally correct, it may be what we need at least a little bit of, to stay healthy. At very least, when we travel to fascinating lands far far away, we'll be able to eat the real street food of the culture, not just the sanitized tourist food at the hotel. Plus, zombies are said to taste like chicken.
P.S.: I hasten to add that, should you visit me, all food you receive will be of the non-zombie variety. And don't listen to Sally, those were slow cooked hoisin pork short ribs, not barbequed undead finger joints.