YouDocs column, 7-31-12: Straight dope on too much soap

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Q: Our pediatrician told me that using antimicrobial soaps and oversanitizing our house could give my 4-year-old son asthma later in life. Is he kidding? -- Grace P., Minneapolis

A: Bacteria -- even disease-causing bugs -- are important for good health. The indiscriminant annihilation of those little creatures may deny a young'un's developing immune system the opportunity to meet its adversaries and build its germ-fighting muscles properly.

Seems lack of exposure to some germs weakens the immune system, allowing certain parts to overdevelop unchecked. The result is autoimmune diseases -- diseases in which immune system cells that are designed to battle invading bacteria decide, like bored delinquents, that they gotta get some action somewhere, and they kill off the body's own healthy cells. That's what happens in type 1 diabetes (insulin-producing beta cells are killed); Hashimoto's (thyroid-hormone-producing cells die off); and rheumatoid arthritis (joint tissue is attacked). Allergies are another type of immune response gone wacky; allergic asthma is one example. As the use of home-cleaning products and soaps containing an antimicrobial chemical called triclosan has gone up in the past 40 years, reported cases of asthma have almost tripled. Now researchers at Johns Hopkins have found a significant association between children's allergies and exposure to antimicrobial agents in toothpastes, soaps and cosmetics.

What's the solution? Soap (without antibacterials) and water. It's just as effective at killing bacteria as fancied up sterilizers, and unlike antimicrobials that may trigger antibiotic resistance, soap does its job and then the battle is over, until the next time you need to suds up your hands. So go easy on the antibacterial products. Your son's immune system will be stronger in the long run.

Q: My doctor says if I strengthen my muscles, I'll strengthen my bones, too. Is that true, and will it cut my risk for osteoporosis? -- Madeline K., Schenectady, N.Y.

A: It's true that stronger muscles mean stronger bones. Not long ago, we mentioned a study of women who went through early menopause (that amps up the risk for osteoporosis, the brittle bone disease) and then adopted a workout routine combining a range of physical activities from lifting weights to jumping rope. After two years of cross-training, the women's muscle strength and bone mass increased.

A recent study funded by the National Institute of Health now confirms that increasing muscle mass makes the spongy insides and the hard outsides of bones stronger, and for women it is particularly effective in developing stronger, load-bearing bones, such as the hip, lumbar spine and thigh bone.

Every year around a quarter of a million women in North America suffer hip fractures, and 15 percent to 20 percent never recover the health they had. To protect yourself, adopt a workout routine you can stick to.

First, a good warmup is key before muscle-building or aerobics, especially if you are working out in the morning, when you're likely a bit stiffer. Then ...

1. Explore new equipment at the gym, and try innovative new combo classes: water workouts with swimming and strength training; yoga-lates, a blend of yoga and Pilates; or piloxing (for the more aggressive), which puts Pilates and boxing together.

2. Take up a new activity, such as racquetball or ballroom dancing. Learn to jump rope again.

3. Add intervals -- short bursts of increased intensity -- to every workout that you can.

4. When using weights, build intensity through reps. Do exercises that use both small and large muscle groups.

5. Beyond exercise, help your bones stay strong by making sure you get enough calcium and vitamin D-3.

( Mehmet Oz, M.D. is host of "The Dr. Oz Show," and Mike Roizen, M.D. is Chief Medical Officer at the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute. Submit your health questions at www.doctoroz.com.)

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