The Risks of a Sterile Environment

As some of you might know, my dad had a close brush with death recently. Since then I have become a little obsessed with health topics like organic food, detoxification routine, and ensuring my family get the best possible nutrition.  In fact, I have just completed a 24 hours detoxification program that was supposed to clear out my five critical organs and cleansed my body of any toxins. It was my first detoxification program and trust me, I thought I’ll never make it through.

While my dad was fighting for his life against a severe infection, we researched a fair bit on the internet to understand his condition and the actions that the doctors were taking.  As a result of this direct interest, I found out that our body had a pretty complex and comprehensive multi-layered defense against disease.  It is so smart that it would probably make any military chief or defense minister look mediocre

Briefly, there are three basic layers. The first layer is a physical barrier,  the second is the innate immune system and the final is an adaptive immune system.

The physical barrier that prevents pathogens from entering our body is quite straightforward.   As for the innate system, it is essentially a generic response that orders a defense or counter attack when a pathogen is detected.  As it is a generic response, many pathogens are smart enough and do get through.  And this is where the adaptive immune system comes to play.  This part of the immune system is able to detect, identify and order armies of cells to attack the offending threats.  

In the longer term, the adaptive immune system adapts to threats, and builds long term immunity against certain diseases.  It is through the adaptive immune system that vaccines work. It is also the reason for which newly introduced diseases can be particularly dangerous to isolated communities and it was this lack of natural immunity against European originated diseases that wiped out many native american populations, facilitating massive European migration to the New World.

So the other day, I was on my regular milk run for organic food. At the store, I chatted with the lady boss, who is a beautiful lady in her 40s, with clear skin and hardly a wrinkle. She revealed to me her secrets, which involved a regular detoxification routine, and nearly completely organic vegetarian diet. In fact, her routine has become so effective and her body so devoid of toxins that she would get spots on her legs if she were to deviate from it. As a result, she is no longer able to eat out, except for the most benign and mildest food like “yong tau foo” but without the MSG-laden soup.

I thought that was pretty extreme. Her immune system has been so used to a sterile environment that it has lost its ability to fight against invading pathogens

The immune system reminds me of the type of environment I want my children to grow up in.  It is not about keeping them in a sterile environment, wrapping them up in cotton wool safe world, shielding them from everything deemed bad and unwholesome.  

As kids, their judgement is like their adaptive immune system – young, weak, naive and susceptible to corruption and disease.  To a certain extent, we can build their innate immune system and “vaccinate” them against the greater evils and sins but the adaptive system must be taught in conjunction with real world experiences.

We introduced them to our not so perfect world, let them make mistakes and learn the ways of the not so fairy tale world. To adapt and find their place while maintaining their moral direction.

But like most things, it is so much more easily said than done.

It is like flying a kite, giving more string when the wind comes in so that it can soar and reach greater height. Reeling it in when danger lurks to prevent it from crashing. But you’d never know if you have let go too far until the string gives way and when that happen, you can only hope and pray that they will do all right.

Parenthood, unlike a mathematical theorem, has no universal rules. How we raised our children will depend on our values and our priorities in life. And these, are varied, with no possibility of external, objective verification.

Sometimes, we just have to grit our teeth, and take the leap of faith, just like what our little ones do all the time.



  1. Regina says:

    I’m all for hygiene, but I have come to a point whereby I realise that an over-sterile environment will do the boy more harm than good.

    He needs to build up his immunity, and as much as we try to prevent illnesses, they are bound to be more susceptible to germs and viruses as they’re growing up. So me and the hubs has decided to let him be.

    We can’t cocoon him up and protect him forever – and we have instead decided to do all that we can to ensure that he still has his share of fun, but take measures to ‘minimise’ the risk of infections, within reason, of course. That’s the tricky part.

  2. SengkangBabies says:

    We can only keep our kids sterile in Singapore, with our world-class sanitation and relatively clean environment. But what happens when they travel to China or India? (with lesser hygiene standards)

    I would prefer to let my kids adapt to germs and buildup their own immune system. And I share your view about how kids should grow up in SG too 🙂

  3. Ruth says:

    Sometimes, it’s hard to have a good balance between protecting my boy from the germs and bacteria, and exposing him to them so he builds up his immunity. In fact, my feeling torn at this moment. He’s been having a recurrent cough ever since he started going school, that I’m wondering if there’s a need to withdraw him till maybe a few months later.

    By the way, I’m really interested in going thr a detox programme, something I’ve been thinking about for few months now. Could you please share more with me?

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