01 Dec The Importance of Dirt and Germs
In the 18 hundreds, the concept of the “Germ theory” of disease began to gain acceptance. With it, practices of public sanitation, hygienic standards in hospitals, and the use of antimicrobial agents came to the forefront.
We’ve come a long way since the days when doctors were resistant to the suggestion that hand-washing would decrease the spread of illness in their patients. Today, we’re almost obsessed with hygiene: we invest in expensive sterilizers for our baby’s bottles; we carry hand-sanitizers wherever we go; we inculcate our children with a fear of eating anything which has so much as touched the floor. More are more, science is revealing that there are costs as well as benefits to our obsession with being dirt and germ free. This newsletter discusses the importance of exposing ourselves and our children to the right types of germs as well as the “resident germs” in our bodies which are incredibly important to our health and wellbeing.
The Truth Is, We’re Covered In Germs:
Despite many of our best efforts at eradicating germs, all surfaces of the human body which come into contact with the outside world (our skin, mouth, nose, digestive tract, and vaginal tract) are inhabited by trillions of microorganisms; bacteria, fungi, and protozoa!
We are actually born “sterile” but rapidly, during and after birth, infants are exposed to and colonized by many of these organisms (derived from exposure to mom’s microorganisms and through contact with the surrounding environment). Since the immune systems of infants are still underdeveloped, these organisms are recognized as “part of us” and our immune systems do not attack them. Thus, these microbes grow and flourish within and outside of our bodies throughout life. (It’s interesting to note, that the flora of babies born by C-section and those who are bottle-fed, are different from infants who were born by vaginal delivery and were breast fed. The true impact of these variations in flora on our health has not yet been fully studied).
Our relationship with these critters is now being recognized as more than merely non-harmful coexistence. Research is now confirming what naturopathic physicians have known for a long time; the organisms with whom we share our space, and particularly those in the gastrointestinal tract are tremendously important to our health and wellbeing.
The Role of Gastrointestinal Bacteria:
If you’ve ever been to a naturopath, you know that hardly a visit goes by without an in-depth discussion of your digestion and bowel habits! These questions, which at first may seem quite embarrassing, actually give us some insight into the health of the 300 to 1000 different species of microorganisms (“flora”) within your GI tract. These flora are vital to many areas of our health. GI flora perform the following vital functions:
• Fermenting and absorbing food-derived energy: some of these bacteria produce enzymes which humans lack so that we can digest and absorb more of the foods that we eat. An interesting example is lactose, which our flora help to break down. This explains why, after a bout of diarrhea which decreases bacterial count in the gastrointestinal tract, avoidance of dairy is a very good idea. It also explains why supplementing with beneficial bacteria can be helpful in decreasing the symptoms of lactose intolerance.
• These bacteria synthesize vitamins (such as biotin and Vitamin K) in our gastrointestinal tracts.
• Recent research has revealed that the balance of micro-flora in our guts can also influence how much we eat and what foods we crave by altering the balance of hormones which regulate appetite and metabolism.
• Bacteria also ferment certain carbohydrates (called short chain fatty acids) into the major source of energy for the cells of our colon and play a vital role in the health of these cells.
• Bacteria also affect the liver’s processing of certain medications, cholesterol, and hormones (such as estrogen). Healthy metabolism of these substances requires bacterial flora to be in balance. This explains the need for the use of forms of birth control other than “the pill” after a woman has used a broad spectrum antibiotic.
• A good balance of “healthy bacteria” in the GI tract is very important for preventing harmful species (such as yeasts, parasites, and disease-causing bacteria) from colonizing the gut, causing disease, and potentially contributing to an increased cancer risk. It’s always a good idea to supplement with beneficial bacteria to prevent yeast infections after the use of antibiotics.
• Healthy flora is essential for a healthy immune system; they “train” our immune systems to react only when necessary. Recent research findings show that these bacteria play a role in decreasing immune system over-reactivity to allergens and also help the immune system to distinguish “non-self” from “self”; a process important in preventing auto-immune diseases.
• Microorganisms in our GI tracts may even play a role in mood regulation by influencing levels of neurotransmitters in the brain.
Our Warfare on Germs is NOT without Adverse Effects:
To develop properly, the immune system requires exposure to a wide range of these “friendly bacteria” early in life. Without this exposure, the immune system tends towards overreacting; both to outside stimuli (as in allergies and asthma), and to our own bodies (as in the case of autoimmune conditions which are fast increasing in the developed world). An interesting example of this is irritable bowel diseases (such as Crohn’s disease). Epidemiologists have found that Crohn’s disease is far more prevalent in highly industrialized countries and that it is linked to “good hygiene” in youth. The incidence of Crohn’s disease actually decreases in places where sanitization is poor during the first years of life!
What else? The appendix, an organ long believed to be “vestigial” (a remnant of our evolution and no longer important) is now being recognized as a store-house for these beneficial bacteria so that they can be replenished after an illness which would otherwise markedly decrease their numbers (such as infective diarrhea).
Further, we find that exposure to antibiotics, especially those which are broad spectrum, kill off many of these helpful bacteria. Not only does this leave us at an increased risk of overgrowth of yeast and disease-causing bacteria (ever had a yeast infection or a case of diarrhea after treatment with antibiotics?), but it can also have a dramatic effect on the immune system. Studies suggest that children who receive antibiotics in the first year of life more than double their risk of allergies and asthma in later childhood.
Indiscriminate use of antibiotics can actually produce “super bugs”; organisms which are resistant to the “arsenal” of antibiotics we have. This explains the rise in diseases such as MRSA; an infection once found only in hospitals and now increasing in the general community.
So What’s the Bottom Line?:
We have certainly seen much benefit come from hygiene practices and, I firmly believe that children and adults should be taught to wash their hands when arriving at home at the end of the day, after using the bathroom, and before eating.
I also believe that antibiotics play an important role in the treatment of some diseases; and our society has certainly benefited since the days of Luis Pasteur.
That being said, researchers are now telling us that our warfare on germs may be “too much of a good thing”.
The take home messages:
• Let your children play in the dirt (sometimes).
• Reserve alcohol-based hand sanitizers (like Purell) for when you absolutely can’t get to a sink to wash your hands. In cases where you use these sanitizers, make sure that they contain more than 60% alcohol and that you don’t use them in cases when your hands are visibly soiled (since alcohol doesn’t cut well through dirt). Also, make sure you keep these out of the reach of your children. Antibacterial hand soaps are no more effective than soap and water and have been found (at least in the lab setting) to cause antibiotic resistance in some bacteria.
• Use antibiotics judiciously (for example, really question your doctor about their need in the treatment of things like uncomplicated ear infections).
• Feed your friendly bacteria by eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains.
• Supplement with a high quality “probiotic” if you are taking antibiotics. A product which is available at many pharmacies and has been well researched is Culturelle. Note that these probiotics should be separated from antibiotics by about two hours and should be taken during and after antibiotic treatment.
• Finally, ask your naturopath to evaluate the “residents of your gastrointestinal tract” if you’re experiencing symptoms (like gas, bloating, indigestion, floating stool, diarrhea, constipation) or have had a number of yeast infections.
Not all dirt and germs are a bad thing!
Please note: This information is for educational purposes only. Consultation with a licensed health care practitioner is recommended for anyone suffering from a health ailment.
You are free to use the information in this newsletter or pass it on to others, but please keep it intact and credit it to Dr. Leat Kuzniar, ND.