The sound of an old friend’s voice. A handshake, a hug, the gleam in their eye and the joy in their smile. Reconnecting with an old friend is just a fantastic experience. We humans thrive when around friends. Without them in our life things just aren’t right. When we have good friends we depend on them to keep us balanced, supported and honest. When we go too long without them, we crave their company.
In my series on the craving for connection I touched on friendship and how important it is to connect to other people. Today I’m not talking about your long lost buddy from the 4th grade, I’m thinking of some different, much older friends we all have in common. These old friends are germs. Bacteria, viruses, parasites, fungi and more: friends of humans for thousands of generations.
Once a part of everyday life, we coexisted with organisms of all sorts. We now try our hardest to avoid them at all costs, disinfecting or avoiding anything that might be dirty or tainted with germs. We are treating these things as enemies. I think we have it backward. These guys may just be the old friend our body’s craving to reconnect with.
For the sake of brevity, this can be presented as a very simple concept: humans evolved with germs and our biology is hardwired to have interaction and be dependent on them. Everything from our metabolism to the immune system relies upon outside organisms. We are 90% bacteria, 10% human. We need exposure to germs- they give support, challenge and stabilization to our system. They are like friends, there to help us get through life. After some of these old friends busted our chops and presented problems we in all of our scientific and medical panic banished them all. Now we are cruising along solo, missing the ever important sidekicks in our journey, our old friends.
The more we try to travel alone, the more problems we incur. Particularly for the immune system, these germs provide us with the exposure and challenge we need to strengthen our defenses and learn to discern between friends and foes. Immune systems that don’t get exposed to germs don’t develop properly. Allergies and autoimmune disorders are just two examples of how our bodies react inappropriately when not seasoned and well practiced. This is why kids raised on farms have much less asthma and allergies than their peers. We need those germs to stabilize the human system and actualize our biologic potential. In general, we crave germs, they complete us.
Many people have written extensively on this concept, known as the Hygiene Hypothesis and the Old Friends Hypothesis, so if you’re interested in the details, here’s a nice article and podcast that give some good coverage of the subject. Last year I wrote a bit on this Get Dirty and the last year has only reinforced my thinking on how important our connection to germs is.
Sometimes, nothing gets a point across quite like comedy. If you want the blunt but very basic version of the argument Hygiene Hypothesis, George Carlin (**severe language warning**) offers his perspective on these old friends of ours…
The bottom line: our body craves germs. It needs them for immune system practice and support, for digestion and metabolism and simply to feel anchored to the natural world. We evolved in a dirty world with germs, not a sterile one with Lysol. Connecting to germs, not fearing them, is a big craving that drives human biology. So let it reconnect to old friends every once in a while and you might be surprised at just how lost it was without them.
Thanks for reading, have a great old friendly week!