“Natural forces within us are the true healers of disease”- Hippocrates
Does extreme cleanliness lead to a healthy gut and body? Gut health is not only what you eat, but also your attitude towards cleanliness which affects the way your immune system operates. Surprised?
Have you been feeling guilty that your house is not spotlessly clean or your child is not washing hands often enough? You don’t have to be. You are in fact helping your immune system get stronger!
Like many of you, I used to be obsessed with cleanliness until I read about microbes and their benefits. Here are some excerpts from the books “Let them eat dirt“- by B.Brett Finlay, Ph.D. and Marie-Claire Arrieta, Ph.D. (microbiology researchers) and “Eat dirt“- by Dr.Josh Axe. They’ve done a detailed study of gut health and human microbiota (microbes that live in humans) which is a relatively new area of research.
Welcome to the world of microbes
Microbes scare all of us and we are fully justified since some of them are quite dangerous. However, only about one hundred species of microbes are known to cause diseases, the majority of the thousands of species do not cause problems, and are in fact beneficial. So the bacteria in yogurt and beer are not the only ones that are beneficial!
These good bacteria and other beneficial microbes are in charge of digesting most of our food, including fiber and complex proteins and chopping them into more digestible forms, thus helping us maintain a healthy gut. They also help develop our immune systems and even help us combat disease-causing microbes.
Our exposure to microbes and hence our gut health has been on the decline compared to our ancestors or even our parents. Some of the reasons are:
1. Our food supply affects gut health
Our gut health or in other words most of our gut bacteria depend on what we eat. We are not exposed to a whole range of microbes like our ancestors who lived in farms. Unfortunately, our food consists mostly of hybridized grains, genetically modified crops, processed foods, excess sugars and other nutritionally bankrupt foods. Even organic food is not exactly what it seems to be. We live in a world where meat comes wrapped in sterile styrofoam packs and our water is treated until it’s free of nearly all microbes. Our relationship with food is also totally different from that of our ancestors.
2. Over-sanitizing our homes affect good bacteria in our bodies
There is no evidence that we need to expose our children to disease-causing bacteria or avoid hygienic practices to prevent immune diseases later in life. However, it’s practically impossible to grow up without getting an infection. Preventing a child from getting sick at all costs may also prevent a child from being exposed to many harmless, beneficial microbes, thus limiting the opportunity for the body to improve gut health.
By spotlessly cleaning up our children’s environments, we limit their exposure to microbes and prevent their immune systems from acquiring the right tools to mature and learn how to handle pathogens and allergens in the environment. Studies show that children with limited exposure to microbes have a higher chance of developing asthma, characterized by a hyperactive immune system.
3. Obsession with cleanliness does not lead to a healthy gut
When children are out in a green space, the risk of getting infected is relatively lesser, so resist the urge to frantically apply hand sanitizer every time they get dirty. Let them be a little dirty for as long as the play sessions last. All this being said, it’s still important to wash our child’s hands once they get home, after touching heavily commuted, public surfaces or before eating.
It’s better to wash our hands with plain soap and water. Antibacterial soaps and sanitizers are not for everyday common use (except in places where medical hygiene is necessary, like hospitals). They contain harsh chemicals like triclosan, which besides killing bacteria has side effects and is toxic to the environment. It has been shown to alter hormone regulation in animals and may contribute to antibiotic resistance in bacteria.
4. The rise of environmental toxins affect good bacteria in our bodies
Studies show that each of us has the potential to come into contact with as many as eighty thousand environmental toxins and chemicals in a single year. The widespread use of pesticides, food additives and preservatives, and even household cleaners and cosmetics has created a dangerous toxic load in our bodies, which eradicate the beneficial microbes and alter the microbiota of the human body.
5. Overuse of medication adversely affects a healthy gut
We need to guard ourselves against disease-causing pathogens to prevent serious illnesses, and antibiotics are very important in saving patients from the ravages of everything from pneumonia to open wounds. But we also need to distinguish between taking an antibiotic to fight a life-threatening bacterial infection and unnecessarily treating every ailment under the sun with broad-spectrum antibiotics. Worse still, in some countries, the use of antibiotics peaks during influenza virus infections, though they are not effective against viral infections (they are designed to kill bacteria, not viruses). This may be a result of self-medication, which might prove dangerous.
Antibiotics wipe out a whole lot of microbes, some of which may never return. Modifying the microbes that live within us in early childhood can have detrimental health effects later in life, one of them can be an unhealthy gut. Research shows that receiving antibiotics during childhood is associated with an increased risk of obesity, asthma, and allergies. One Stanford University study found that a single course of ciprofloxacin antibiotics could wipe out 50% of a baby’s gut microbiome in just 4 days, of which some of the microbes may be lost for good.
After the emergence of antibiotics, vaccines and sterilization techniques, the prevalence of infectious diseases declined sharply, but there has been an explosive increase in chronic non-infectious diseases in developed countries. These include diabetes, allergies, asthma, inflammatory bowel diseases, autoimmune diseases and even obesity. Today’s sad situation is that most of us know someone suffering from at least one of these illnesses.
Abuse of antibiotics leads to another serious issue, which we’ve been hearing of lately – antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
6. The overwhelming stress of modern life affects gut health
Emotional stress takes a toll on our gut health and hence our microbiota. Stressful life experiences also weaken the immune system over time, reducing our ability to fight bad bacteria and viruses. Moreover, maternal stress and infections during pregnancy are linked to neurological disorders in children.
With so many factors affecting the microbes living within us, what are the steps we can take to maintain a good balance of microbes and hence our gut health? Let’s discuss in part 2-how to improve your gut health in this series on gut health.
Do you agree that microbes play an important role in our overall health? Please let me know your thoughts, I would love to hear from you.