I recently finished Eat Dirt: Why Leaky Gut May Be at the Root Cause of Your Health Problems and 5 Surprising Steps to Cure it by Josh Axe. (Yeah, that’s a long title!) While audio books aren’t my preferred format, I think this book is worth the effort. Dr. Axe makes a few interesting correlations between the relatively sudden rise in autoimmune diseases and other disorders, our sanitized society and our microbiome. While he defines the terms ‘leaky gut,’ ‘microbiome’ and ‘microbiota’ in his book, I will give you the short version: our digestive tract is full of bacteria, both good and bad. This symbiotic relationship is necessary to our own individual survival: we need this bacteria in our digestive tract to break down the food we eat. Once it has been broken down by the bacteria, our body is able to absorb the nutrients through the lining in our intestines. The integrity of our intestinal lining is dependent on the health of these bacteria (microbiota). The microbiome is the environment these bacteria inhabit: essentially our digestive tract. Leaky gut (Increased Intestinal Permeability) is what happens to our digestive tract when we don’t take good care of our microbiome: the integrity of the intestinal lining becomes compromised, allowing not only foods we’ve eaten to enter our bloodstream and body but also some of the toxins that should have been expelled. Sometimes it’s not that the food particles which enter are bad for us: they are not as broken down as they should be, and that causes problems. When foods we’ve eaten before without problems begin giving us problems, it’s usually because our microbiome has been compromised.
This is the reason that so many people have problems like Crohn’s Disease, Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Celiac Disease, among others. The helpful bacteria in the gut has been compromised either by highly processed foods, toxins we’ve ingested (sometimes in the form of medication) and our squeaky clean sanitized society. Not only are we failing to feed and care for our microbiota the way we should, we are actively attacking it with antibiotics, toxic foods, preservatives, chemicals and hand sanitizers. While being clean is a good thing and no one is saying don’t wash your hands, there is such a thing as being toxically clean. Not everything needs to be disinfected and that disinfectant you just used to kill the benign bacteria on your counter or desk could be making you sick instead of keeping you healthy. Most of the bacteria in our environment is not harmful and some of it is actually beneficial and necessary to our survival. Being ‘clean and sanitary’ the way we think of it now is killing us through digestive disorders, autoimmune disease, malnutrition and possibly cancer.
The cure for this? Eat dirt. Really. If you were to swab your skin and look at it under a microscope, you would see thousands of bacteria. Dr. Axe reports that we are probably more bacteria than human since we have them inside us and on us all the time. We are walking bacteria colonies! The naturally occurring bacteria in our environment helps us to break down the foods that come from that environment. When humans foraged for food, the bacterias on the foods like roots and berries became part of our microbiome. Since most of them lived on the foods and broke them down to metabolize them, they continued to do the same thing in our intestines. Therefore, when that farmer plucked an apple in his orchard and ate it after wiping it on his shirt, the bacteria on the apple skin became part of his microbiome and helped him digest the apple he just ate. The bacteria take up residence and multiply in our intestines, so it becomes easier to digest the local foods. When we kill those bacteria before they can get to our intestines, we are killing our ability to digest some of these foods. This is why we sometimes get a little sick when we eat something we’ve never eaten before: the bacteria needed to digest it isn’t in our microbiome.
Humans- and other animals- have developed this way and it’s not a optional condition. Without these bacteria, we will die, probably a horrible painful death. We would be ravaged by disease and illness and be unable to derive any nutrients from anything we ate. Our microbiome not only feeds us, it protects us from illness: our gut is our immune system’s first line of defense. If our gut is sick, odds are we are sick too!
Some of you know that I work in the same building as my sister, who’s known the attorneys I now work with for many years. In fact, I heard about many of these people for years before I ever met them, and one of the secretaries was forced to retire because of her Crohn’s disease. When I first met this poor woman at a social gathering a few years ago, I could not believe how thin and frail she looked. When I came to work here, a little over a year ago, one of the things that really shocked me was how much hand sanitizer they had in the office. Seriously, they have Costco size bottles every fifty feet and in every room in the building- NOT KIDDING! After reading Dr. Axe’s book, I think I may have an idea about what contributed to this poor woman’s Crohn’s disease. While I have hand sanitizer in my purse and on my desk (little 99 cent bottles), I don’t often use it. I also have disinfectant wipes that I rarely use. If I think I need them, I do (mainly to clean off sticky stuff), but there are a lot of people in this building who consistently smell like hand sanitizer.
I don’t want to give the impression that I’m an unsanitary dirty slob (I come from a family of farmers so a little dirt is a way of life), and years ago, I listened to a report about ‘Super Viruses’ and how we were making them ourselves by overuse of antibiotics and anti-bacterial everything. Every time we take an antibiotic or use an antibacterial, we do not kill all the bugs: some are resistant, survive and then when they reproduce, all the new bugs have their parents’ resistance to antibiotics/ antibacterials. This is how we end up with killer bacteria like MRSA (methilicillin-resistant staph aureus) and VRSA (vancomycin-resistant staph aureus) just to name a couple. These killer bacteria are resistant to most of the drugs used to treat the ‘normal’ staph infections, and if not treated correctly, they will kill you. (No kidding: I’ve the MRSA and it’s not fun.) The doctor quoted in the report advised not taking an antibiotic every time we think we get a cold or flu, and when we wash our hands, regular soap and warm/ hot water is enough. This advice stuck with me and my sister and so while I do keep the antibacterial stuff around for times when I think it’s needed, most of the time I just use the soap and water. I’ve never been a fan of gulping medications of any kind (the only reason I went to the doctor for the MRSA was because it was MRSA.) I get a cold, I’m miserable for about a week and I get over it. Maybe I’m just old fashioned, but I figure if we consistently hide from dirt and germs, when we do run across them, we have no resistance to them. As a kid, I played in the sandbox, ran around barefoot and, according to my mom, was a big fan of making mud pies when I was a baby. I’ve also had pets all my life and they sit on my lap, lick my face and hands, and sleep right next me. (If what Dr. Axe says is true, my pets and I have a lot of the same microbiota!)
Dr. Axe’s philosophy regarding bacteria and germs is fairly similar to my own: micro-exposure. Basically, my philosophy has been to treat my immune system like a car and keep the battery charged and fuel lines in good shape by using it. If your car just sits idle in the garage, your battery loses its charge and if it sits too long, the oil and gas start to lacquer. The tires and fuel lines start to crack and lose flexibility. In other words, your car falls apart and your immune system isn’t much different. If your immune system gets triggered periodically by a cut, a cold or some mildly unpleasant stomach bug, it swings into action, takes care of it and then goes back to ‘stand-by.’ If your immune system doesn’t get triggered regularly, then it can overreact and start attacking everything, including your own body. Or, if it’s constantly triggered because you eat foods you are sensitive to, then it can also start ignoring the triggers, the way you hit the snooze button on your alarm clock when you’re half asleep. Later, when you wake up after oversleeping, you’re in real trouble! Getting small exposures to bacteria on a regular basis keeps everything functioning normally. Your immune system knows what’s a real threat and what isn’t and you can pick up additional healthy bugs!
By contrast, not being exposed to different bacteria does not keep you any healthier, and in fact, can make you sick. Dr. Axe mentions a comparison study done of Amish children and ‘mainstream’ children regarding allergies, food sensitivities and asthma. The Amish children, most living in rural areas surrounded by animals, pollen and dirt, were much healthier with fewer allergies, sensitivities and breathing problems, while the ‘mainstream’ children had higher rates of all these problems. Dr. Axe’s theory is that being constantly exposed to a myriad of different bacteria kept the Amish children immune to these problems. Again, microexposures to bacteria were keeping their immune system and digestive tracts in good working order.
Obviously, we need to use a little common sense when it comes to bacteria. Trying to kill off every bacterium and germ we come across is a bad idea, as well as being pretty unfeasible! But we still need to be sensible about things: if you’re in a public restroom, maybe using the hand sanitizer after washing isn’t a bad idea, and if you have a cut on your hand, you might want to use gloves when you’re out in the yard cleaning up the doggie doo. Using the hand sanitizer after finishing lunch at your own house or your own desk might be a bit overkill, literally. Washing up is a good idea, but warm water instead of soap with triclosan or another antibacterial agent probably isn’t necessary every time.
Besides not killing our microbiota, Dr. Axe gives some advice on the ‘care and feeding of our microbiome.’ They are living organisms and they need an hospitable environment to live and reproduce (our intestines) as well as plenty of food (our food is their food). Most of those unhealthy bugs also like the junk food we like, and when we eat more of it than we do the healthy foods, the bad bugs crowd out the good bugs. This is a problem for us, because the bad bacteria (ideally about 15% of our microbiome) can cause many of the digestive disorders mentioned above. When the bad bacteria take over our intestines, we lose the ability to digest certain foods, and these are usually the foods with higher nutrients, so even though we are eating the healthy vegetables, fruits and proteins, our intestines and our bodies never get the nutrients because the bugs in our guts that break those down for us aren’t there to break them down. It’s like having a flashlight with dead batteries: no good batteries, no light and the flashlight is useless to you. If you have no good bugs in your digestive tract, all that healthy food is useless to you. Even just feeding the bad bugs more often than feeding the good bugs can cause a population shift favoring the bacteria that cause us problems.
So don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty. Don’t be afraid to hug your dog or cat, even if they’re a little grungy from the yard. Eat more local organic veggies. One of the sayings in my family is “God made dirt so dirt don’t hurt.” I really believe a little dirt isn’t a bad thing any more than getting a little sweaty is a bad thing: they both keep us healthy!