By Kristin Wartman
We are approaching flu season, and there’s one scene that’s becoming more and more common: people and parents dousing themselves and their children with antibacterial soaps. But this aggressive tactic may actually be causing more harm than good. That’s because antibacterial soaps, much like antibiotics, don’t discriminate between good and bad bacteria — they just obliterate them all. And without the good bacteria protecting us, we may be more likely to get sick in the first place.
The trillions of bacteria that live in and on our bodies are called the microbiome — research into the microbiome is hot right now with new and exciting studies regularly making headlines. The microbiome makes our lives possible, and in fact these bacterial cells outnumber our human cells by a lot — 10 to one — and play a crucial role in our health. Recent research implicates a compromised microbiome in diseases and chronic conditions ranging from allergies, diabetes, and obesity, to autism, depression, and schizophrenia. And our chances of contracting flu, colds, and even being susceptible to food poisoning is likely based on the health of our microbiome. Scientists are now theorizing that the health and diversity of our gut bacteria, in particular, may be at the very root of our overall health. A recent New York Times piece looks at how our compromised microbiomes may be what’s causing the modern allergy epidemic:
The prevalence of allergic disease and asthma increased between two- and threefold in the late 20th century, a mysterious trend often called the “allergy epidemic.”
These days, one in five American children have a respiratory allergy like hay fever, and nearly one in 10 have asthma.
The article posits that suburban and city residents who lack exposure to the diverse bacteria found on farms suffer a damaged microbiome, which compromises our bodies’ ability to develop a healthy immune system, which can differentiate between a real threat and a perceived one. As is the case with allergies, a less-than optimally healthy immune system can overreact to various environmental triggers. The Times article takes the reader to Amish farm country in rural Indiana where rates of allergies among children growing up on farms are significantly lower than for their city dwelling peers:
The earlier exposure begins, it seems, the greater the protection — and that includes during pregnancy. Children born to mothers who work with livestock while pregnant, and who lug their newborns along during chores, seem the most invulnerable to allergic disease later.
In another recent article in The New Yorker, the microbiome is featured with an emphasis on mental health. The article presents recent research showing that germ-free environments lead mice to become more anxious, depressed, and hopeless. This is because much of our serotonin is produced in the gut, up to 80 percent by many accounts, and a lack of healthy and diverse bacteria in the gut interferes with serotonin production. The article also cites research that shows a lack of beneficial bacteria made mice obese and prone to diabetes. Again, what we are exposed to as babies is crucially important:
Organisms that are present when we’re two months old may have shaped our brain, but they have long since disappeared when we hit twenty or forty or sixty. Indeed, while a recent summary in the journal JAMA Pediatrics suggests that bowel bacteria may provide insight into “autism, schizophrenia and anxiety,” the authors also emphasize the role that timing plays in the microbiome’s influence over the developing brain.
Both of these articles and countless others point to the importance of what happens to you as a newborn baby and in utero. According to the Times article, “What happens to your mother during the nine months before your birth may affect your vulnerability to many diseases decades later, from heart disease and obesity to schizophrenia.”
For those reading this, that ship has sailed — but how can you help optimize the microbiome of future generations? Short of moving to the country and taking up farming, there are several key elements. When possible, have a vaginal birth. During the baby’s trip down the birth canal, he or she acquires important bacteria from the mother that is specifically tailored for the baby. Researchers have found that a mother’s bacteria change during pregnancy to help provide specific protection for the newborn. A recent study from the Canadian Medical Association Journal found that infants born by cesarean lacked a specific group of bacteria found in infants delivered vaginally, even if they were breastfed. While a cesarean birth sometimes cannot be avoided, most women are able to breastfeed. This is the single most important thing a mother can do to guarantee a healthier microbiome. Researchers found that infants who were strictly formula-fed, compared with babies that were exclusively or partially breastfed, also had significant differences in their gut bacteria. The researchers wrote:
We want parents (and physicians) to realize that their decisions regarding c-section and breastfeeding can impact their infant’s gut microbiome, and this can have potentially lifelong effects on the child’s health,” says postdoctoral student and first author Meghan Azad, University of Alberta.
And while having babies in tow while milking cows is not possible for most city dwellers, ensuring that your baby is exposed to a variety of bacteria is possible. Beyond breastfeeding, the next most important thing is to avoid antibacterial soaps and other antibacterial products. These products kill all the bacteria wherever you put them. Parents who constantly use antibacterial soaps before touching their baby or who clean the baby’s toys and clothes with antibacterial soaps are doing a major disservice to the baby and his or her microbiome.
There is also added concern over the ingredient triclosan, which is the antibacterial agent found in soaps, shampoos, deodorants, toothpaste, and cleaning supplies as well as toys, trash bags, kitchen utensils, and bedding. In recent animal studies, scientists have found that triclosan causes hormone-related problems including an increased risk of infertility and early puberty. The Federal Drug Administration (FDA) has recently stated that, “the agency does not have evidence that triclosan in antibacterial soaps and body washes provides any benefit over washing with regular soap and water.” And the FDA is reviewing the safety of triclosan, which has existed on the market since the 1970s without adequate studies demonstrating its safety. According to an article on CBS News, “The Endocrine Society, a group of doctors and scientists who specialize in the hormone system, flagged triclosan four years ago as an ingredient that alters levels of thyroid hormones and reproductive hormones like testosterone and estrogen.”
We are just beginning to understand how our overly-sterile modern living environments might be causing more harm than good. Over the next several years we will likely uncover more and more evidence to prove that our war on bacteria is damaging future generations and ourselves. For now though, make it a priority to avoid all antibacterial products — including that antibacterial soap you thought would keep you and your kids from getting the flu. Good old fashioned soap and water works just fine.
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Kristin Wartman is a journalist focusing on the intersections of food, health, politics, and culture. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Huffington Post, Civil Eats, and Grist, as well as in academic journals such as Critical Quarterly, The Black Scholar, Tikkun Magazine, and The New Labor Forum.
Kristin is also a Certified Nutrition Educator and works as a nutrition consultant with various doctors in New York City. She holds a Masters Degree in Literature from the University of California, Santa Cruz. She lives in New York City.
Kristin’s Bio can be found on the about page of her website.