The Zombie Apocalypse And The Hygiene Hypothesis

johnliu_gwJuly 30, 2012

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.

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John, I love your writings.

Just stay away from the Worcestershire sauce, ok?

Here is a link that might be useful: I almost spent some money here...

    Bookmark   July 30, 2012 at 11:46PM
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It's not a bad thought :-)
Jessy, I soooo _want_ a lot of that stuff :-D

    Bookmark   July 31, 2012 at 12:39AM
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How much of this uber-cleanliness do you think is fomented by manufacturers who have a product to sell? (Purell, I'm looking at you!)

    Bookmark   July 31, 2012 at 10:31AM
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"With fewer external challenges to fight, our immune systems start to malfunction and the rate of autoimmune disorders rises."

There was nothing uber-clean about my childhood growing up on a National Priorities List Super Fund site. Lots of animals around also. Heck, I even had a pet monkey. Yet, I have quite an array of auto-immune diseases. Hmmm, back to the research drawing board... :)


    Bookmark   July 31, 2012 at 11:11AM
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Having suffered my whole life with a touchy stomach, I'm not about to experiment. But I'll second Jessy on, "John, I love your writings." Always a good read.

    Bookmark   July 31, 2012 at 11:22AM
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Though I'm sure that our 'over-clean' culture has played a role, I think the over-use of antibiotics may be more to blame. You must understand, I come from an environment where one side of my family (mine) only takes meds when NECESSARY, and the other side of the family (his) wants to pop a pill because something MIGHT be amiss. It has led to some interesting child rearing, uh hemmm, "discussions". I'm guessing it may be a combination, but the cultures that can afford and have the availability of the antibiotics, hormones, pesticides, Purell, Lysol, etc. seem to be suffering the most.....hmmmmm.....

    Bookmark   July 31, 2012 at 11:44AM
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Since this is the cooking forum, if there is to be a coming zombie apocalypse, maybe we need some recipes for the zombie meat.

How about:

Flamethrower-Roasted Zombie Arms

Blast approaching zombie with flamethrower until it stop moving.
Hack off arms with cleaver. Serve warm.

Note: For a special touch mix apricot preserves with the gelled gasoline in the flamethrower, to impart a fruity flavor to the roasted meat.

    Bookmark   July 31, 2012 at 3:17PM
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See - tastes like chicken, even looks like chicken!

    Bookmark   July 31, 2012 at 3:49PM
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I am sure that to some extent your hypothesis is correct....but having spent most of a year with a compromised immune system and knowing well 4 who have died of AIDS I do believe in caution.
You develop immunities by being exposed to whatever....but over exposure will kill you or make you very sick. Sort of like the bee keeper who eventually becomes immune to the venom or the snake handler who becomes able to fight off the rattler bite, but dies when he is bitten by a cobra.

I won't eat spoiled food no matter how much cumin and tumeric you put on just tastes nasty....rotton tomatoes? Blech! brown peaches? Yukko! But those same apples with dark bruises make awesome cider. and have you ever stood around a wine press? Seen all what goes in with the grapes? Spiders, bird poop, sticks twigs other bugs....all pressed and fermented together. Swore I would never drink wine again...
Well you know how that goes!

Baby pigs gain faster when they don't have diarrhea ...cows give more milk when they don't have they are given antibiotics routinely...
I think that' a lot of our problems....but I know that antibiotics have saved my life, my husband's life my son in law's life and 2 grand children. An I willing to trade some IBS for their lives? You Betcha! Zombies be damned!

    Bookmark   July 31, 2012 at 4:05PM
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George Carlin pegged this beautifully some years ago. He relates that he was a kid in NYC, where he and his pals swam in the Hudson; there was raw sewage in the water and he made the comment that his immune system was 'tempered in raw s**t!'

Click on the link if you want to see his routine. Caution: this was filmed toward the end of his life, and over his career the language got coarser and coarser. This isn't his 'hippy-dippy mailman' phase; this is his raging against the world phase, and the language is pretty rough.

Here is a link that might be useful: george carlin on immune systems (warning: language)

    Bookmark   July 31, 2012 at 4:10PM
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Oh arley - I spit my Caffeine Free Diet Pepsi all over the monitor at the last line! Thanks for the laugh.


    Bookmark   July 31, 2012 at 4:34PM
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I am with George Carlin on every thing.

I have lived briefly in a place where there were outdoor toilets which drained everything directly to the vegetable farms, and we ate the vegetables from those farms. No one every got sick.

It is no secret that modern living has produced progressively inferior biological human beings, and super strong germs.

There are not too many rabbits we can pull out from the medical science hat anymore.


    Bookmark   July 31, 2012 at 10:25PM
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Modern sanitation revolutionized our lives and I would not want to be without it. I do genealogy and the sad fact is no family I have ever researched before the early 1900's ever raised all their children. They lost them to infectious disease that can largely now be prevented mostly by sanitation and also of course the use of vaccines and antibiotics. I would rather have a living child who has asthma I guess than a dead one from thyphoid.

    Bookmark   August 1, 2012 at 6:48AM
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This actually fascinates me because I am an ecologist. Nature is all about balance and the myriad of complex interactions that create it. There is a lot of great research going on these days about the bacterial ecosystem, in our guts and in the soil and what it contributes to human health. Human designed factory farmed systems simplify everthing and are constantly running amok which then requires even more wacky Rube Goldbergian "fixes." I just read the papers from a symposium on this ultra toxic e-coli strain that is a direct result of factory farming conditions. Yes, to raise healthy meat animals without antibiotics requires more land, and more human work and therefore costs more. Cleaning up water pollution so that fish can breed naturally costs money. Using IPM and organic farming methods, same deal. But one of the few sources of activity in our economy these days is "health care" which is basically selling products to America's chronically "unwell" population. Widespread disease and immune system problems are a sign of stress, and it's not just humans that are showing signs of this, too many species to count at this point, and it isn't a matter of individuals, it's whole populations that matter statistically. So in my mind, we have shifted the jobs and money from one sector (food production) to another, (medicine). Taking care of our natural resources creates economic activity too!! And contrary to what some would believe, I don't think it is an either/or situation, either use factory farming methods or go back to desperate poverty, illness and starvation. C'mon, we are Homo SAPIENS!! . . . From the Latin "sapient" meaning wise, having taste and discernment, sound judgement. There are millions of bright minds working on solutions, all using Nature as the template. IMHO, before we completely destroy the planet's natural operating system and replace it with what the human mind so far has managed to perceive, I think we should figure out and save the blueprints and directions!!!

Oh, and I'm happy we have whipped some of the acute major diseases that used to kill us, and made our world safer for workers, who used to die from work-related problems a lot. So I say, let's move on to tackling this chronic illness situation!! And I have a feeling the solution won't be the latest pill the pharmeceuticals will spend millions developing. I suffer from a myriad of chronic inflammation conditions and will probably add a third or fourth before I die. And I am positive it is genetics, but genetics oftentimes just loads the gun, then it's the environment that pulls the trigger. My doctors can't understand why I won't have anymore of their expensive tests that keep the medical system of the economy rolling along, but so far have contributed ZERO to any information as to why I am having these problems or what can be done to "cure" them. BTW, they are migranes, IBS, a herniated disk, severe menstrual cramps, and interstitial cystitis. And I've paid THOUSANDS for useless tests, including several MRI's, EKG's, x-rays, and blood tests by the dozens. How many times do you have to rule something out??!! I know some type of arthritis is looming once I get through menopause. Now I realize that in the past most women died in childbirth or some type of infection, before they could experience all the chronic conditions I have, but as I said, we're not doing very well at moving beyond the model that solved those problems. Although I will say we have come some distance in the 27 years since I started with my first spell of migranes. And I'm pretty sure the stress of chronic underemployment and long hours commuting are the major triggers for these issues. So I'm alive, which I probably wouldn't have been 100 years ago, but my quality of life is questionable. 100 years ago if I had lived, I would have been living in a hovel in Poland or a hut in Holland, doing some type of miserable, menial work and dodging either Cossacks or the Sea. So I shouldn't complain. But it does fascinate me from a scientific inquiry perspective.

    Bookmark   August 1, 2012 at 7:04AM
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Since we are creating supergerms with our overuse of antibiotics it won't be too much longer before those glory days of "survival of the fittest" will be upon us again. I suspect that in the past those who made it past childhood were pretty robust in their prime, but that is the key, surviving past childhood. I and a brother contracted spinal meningitis back in the early 50s and without modern medicine would surely have succumbed. As it was, it was quite touch and go. Being the "fittest" often has to do with being in the right place at the right time. I had a ggrandfather who died at 39 years from typhoid in his water. His fatherinlaw (gggrandfather) died about the same time at age 98 after having spent the morning walking behind a mule plowing 40 acres. But then, he had survived the Trail of Tears when his wife did not. All, I imagine were sturdy stock, it was just the luck of the draw.

    Bookmark   August 1, 2012 at 7:31AM
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Great post, lpink.

I have recently listened to a few discussions by research scientists on the same topics.


    Bookmark   August 1, 2012 at 7:51AM
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Since 1 in 4 American women takes mental health drugs, perhaps we're already in the midst of the Zombie Apocalypse and haven't recognized it as such.

    Bookmark   August 1, 2012 at 8:28AM
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I wonder how the Zombies died in the first place. An overdose of Purell? I wonder why Mexicans don't get sick from street food while all the gringos get Montezuma's Revenge. I suppose our (presuming you are a gringo)gut simply does not have the flora to cope with the invaders from the outside world.

However, there's no doubt that disease is spread through people living in filthy conditions, and you will never convince me that eating semi-spoiled food is okay.

I believe there is a happy middle ground where we aren't overly obsessed with germ-free living but do use common sense where hygiene is concerned.

I love that people bring their dogs into cafes in Paris and I never for a minute think the dogs are contaminating the food. You will not die from eating a few dog hairs, should one or two land in your vichyssoise.

I am grateful for antibiotics. I am glad that docs, nurses, etc have to wash their hands between patients. I like that the deli person wears plastic gloves, because who knows where those hands have been.

John, please tell me you did not eat that sandwich.

    Bookmark   August 1, 2012 at 10:06AM
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Ruthanna that was the best laugh I have had in a long while. A great "thought for the day!" :)

    Bookmark   August 1, 2012 at 8:40PM
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"--1 in 4 American women takes mental health drugs--"
The other three can't afford the medicine? (Just kidding, just kidding)

Not trying to patronize the fair sex, our social system is so unfairly structured that causes so much more stress to women.

Lower pay for the same job, single parenthood for the female, fulltime job and taking care of the household, taking care of elderly parents, men's shorter life to take care things ---etc.


    Bookmark   August 1, 2012 at 9:11PM
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I did eat that third sandwich, actually, after carrying it back to Portland on the bike. My tummy was a touch queasy after, which pleased me. I think of it like sore muscles after lifting. You know after the muscle heals, it will be more powerful, and after the tummy dispatches the three day old sandwich, it will be more resilient. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger, and all that.

So, on the topic of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), the company I mentioned above is testing a "drug" which is pig whipworm or something like that, in a suspension that you drink. The worms only live a couple weeks in your intestinal tract and are unable to reproduce - not being evolved for the human body - but while they are extant, apparently the immune system finds something else to do and doesn't manifest as IBS. That is the indication from the early clinical trials, anyway.

    Bookmark   August 1, 2012 at 10:27PM
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I am not making this up. This was what I heard from those research scientists.

There are people so sanitized that they lack certain microorgsnisms for digestion.

There is a proceedure for BM transplant from healthy people top the patient.


    Bookmark   August 1, 2012 at 10:37PM
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What doesn't kill you makes you stronger, and all that.

John, not always. Sometimes it actually does kill you.

    Bookmark   August 2, 2012 at 12:03AM
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Speaking of Zombies, how about Vampires?

Just saw this:

"Rabies has been thought of as virtually 100-percent fatal unless treated immediately, but new research shows that a small number of isolated Peruvians have natural immunity from the animal-transmitted disease.
Researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that one in 15 people living in the remote Amazonian region in Peru were protected without medical intervention against the virus that kills more than 55,000 people globally every year.
Their trick: Vampire bats exposed the remote Peruvians to enough of the rabies virus to confer resistance, but not enough to kill them."


    Bookmark   August 2, 2012 at 10:14AM
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Bumblebeez SC Zone 7

I tend to be a believer in the whole "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger" theory but also the 5 second rule.

    Bookmark   August 2, 2012 at 12:08PM
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I also believe somewhat the "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger", but I have limits.

My old doctor who was a very wise and moderate man told me that we were "sanitizing ourselves sick" and that if we didn't expose ourselves and our children to soem things we'd never develop a natural immunity.

Of course, I'll kiss a horse on the lips, don't blink when I eat ice cream with raw eggs (although the fat content gives me pause, LOL), if I find a dog hair in something I pick it out. I eat raw tomatoes from the garden, dusted off on my shirt, although I know I grew them in nicely composed cow manure.

However, I don't eat meat that's been sitting on the counter for two days, I won't buy home canned goods from people I don't know and I cringe when someone sits their purse on my counter, knowing that purse has been on the floor of the bathroom, the back seat of the car, sitting on the sidewalk. I really don't like it when I go somewhere and see cats walking on counters either, because I know they've dug in their litter box. At my home I just quietly clean the counter before I start food prep and don't obsess. At the cat's home, I just shut up because although I find it icky, it won't kill me and I know it.

And I'm not one of the people who get so grossed out over a bug. Insects are eaten in many parts of the world (although I choose not to except in case of starvation) and I love lobster which is basically a huge water bug. Yeah, really, it is, look it up.

So, at the end of the world, the zombies are going to have to do me in, my immunity at this point is pretty good.


    Bookmark   August 2, 2012 at 12:41PM
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