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Sunday, August 4, 2013

The War on Bacteria



We’ve been waging war on bacteria ever since the moment we met them. We’ve won some victories along the way, securing safe drinking water and gaining better control of certain contagious diseases.

But there have also been significant losses. While we develop antibiotics, bacteria develop resistance. We sterilize our hands, our bodies, our homes, and our food, yet life-threatening infections and autoimmune illnesses are alarmingly on the rise.

Instead of working against the microbes in our environment, we need to start working with them. Some bacteria do cause disease but the overwhelming majority help prevent disease. It’s time to recognize the difference and cultivate the friendly flora that protect us from illness and infection.

Big Benefits

Research studies show that friendly bacteria benefit our bodies in several ways. They protect us from unfriendly bacteria that cause disease by forming a protective barrier along our skin and mucus membranes. They also secrete compounds that discourage the growth of disease-causing microbes and modulate the immune system, making our bodies more resistant to disease.

Friendly bacteria manufacture vitamins and break down environmental toxins. They reduce inflammation, metabolize excess hormones (like estrogen), and regulate the production of neurotransmitters like serotonin and GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid). They help digest food, regulate appetite and satiety, and determine how we store fat.

Friendly flora have been found to shorten the duration of colds and flu and they minimize allergic responses like asthma, eczema, and hay fever. They have also been useful in preventing and/or treating other infections as well as anxiety, inflammatory bowel disease, obesity, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes. They’ve been shown to have anti-cancer activity and they can even turn genes on and off.

Antibiotics Abuse


Antibiotics have been the focus of our war on bacteria and they permeate our environment. They’re in the medicines we take when we’re sick, the food we eat, and the water we drink. Each year in the United States doctors write between eight and nine prescriptions for every ten people and experts estimate that half of them are unnecessary.

We also routinely give antibiotics to our animals. Eighty percent of all antibiotics sold in the US are given to cattle, pigs, and poultry, intended to speed growth and compensate for unsanitary living conditions. The antibiotics make their way into the meat and also into plant foods fertilized with manure from the livestock. Run-off from these farms pollutes waterways and antibiotics end up in drinking water.

Excessive exposure to antibiotics has strengthened disease-causing superbugs and weakened our ability to fight them. Seventy percent of the bacteria that cause infections in hospitals are resistant to at least one antibiotic and some are resistant to every antibiotic. As a result, we’ve had to use increasingly stronger doses of increasingly stronger drugs to kill them, dramatically increasing our exposure to medicines that kill friendly flora too. Without friendly bacteria to help defend us, we’re much more vulnerable to illness and infection.

Sterile Environments

In our quest for cleanliness, we carry around anti-bacterial wipes and bottles of hand sanitizer and we use harsh chemicals to clean our homes. But we’ve confused clean with sterile and dirty with infectious. It’s good to have a home free of dust, which can contain toxic chemicals from the environment (a study that sampled one hundred twenty homes detected sixty-six harmful compounds in household dust including hormone-disrupting chemicals like phthalates and pesticides), but it’s normal and healthy to live with bacteria.

Too little exposure to microorganisms in our environment has been associated with an increased risk of inflammatory bowel disease and atopic illnesses like allergies, asthma, and eczema.

Deficient Diets

Not only have we done everything possible to wipe out the bacteria in our environment, but we make life difficult for friendly flora that do survive. We eat plenty of processed foods containing antimicrobial additives that kill off good and bad bacteria alike. Pasteurized and irradiated foods don’t replenish the friendly bacteria our bodies depend on. And diets low in fiber lack nutrients called prebiotics needed to support them.

Friendly Flora

Minimize the effects of our anti-bacterial environment, replenish friendly flora, and maintain a healthy microbial balance by following these five steps.

#1  Stop Sterilizing.

It’s always a good idea to wash your hands with soap and hot water before you eat or touch your face, but antibacterial products are unnecessary. Avoid commercial and chemical cleaners that sterilize your home. Instead use non-toxic cleaning agents like soap, vinegar, baking soda, and essential oils.

#2  Eat cultured and lacto-fermented foods every day.

Cultured and lacto-fermented foods are preserved by cultivating bacteria, not killing them. The friendly species of bacteria that dominate them naturally prevent the growth of disease-causing bacteria by maintaining a specific pH and secreting anti-microbial compounds.

These foods include vinegar, pickles, capers, olives, sauerkraut, kimchi (fermented vegetables), umeboshi (fermented plums, whole or ground into a paste), tempeh, miso (a savory paste made from fermented soy beans), tamari (soy sauce made from fermented soy beans), fish sauce, cacao nibs, red wine, yogurt, kefir, buttermilk, and cheese.

Some store-bought items like pickles aren’t truly fermented; they’re merely marinated in pasteurized vinegar. Look for store-bought products that contain live cultures and have not been pasteurized, or learn to ferment your own foods (a good resource is The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz).

#3  Eat prebiotics every day.

Prebiotics come from polysaccharides found in fiber and they stimulate the growth of friendly gut bacteria. They’re found in onions, garlic, beans, asparagus, artichokes, and ground flax seeds.

#4  Resolve underlying issues.

Imbalances in gut flora like too few friendly bacteria or too many unfriendly bacteria can cause digestive problems that may not be solved with diet alone. If you experience gas, bloating, abdominal cramping, constipation, or diarrhea, talk to your doctor about stool culture testing to rule out intestinal infections and determine the levels of friendly microbes present in your digestive tract.

#5  Consider supplementation.

Many people benefit from taking probiotics to supplement friendly flora, especially those suffering from allergies, recurrent infections, metabolic problems, and digestive disorders. But some products are more effective than others. One study that analyzed fourteen commercial probiotic products found that only one contained what was written on the label. For a guarantee that products contain what they are labeled to contain, look for seals from organizations like the US Pharmacopeia, National Nutritional Foods Association, Consumer Lab, or National Sanitation Foundation International. Also look for probiotics free of additives like starches, gums, and maltodextrin. Ask your naturopathic doctor for individualized recommendations.

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