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Are we too clean?

We are not sterile beings. We have more bacteria in our digestive tracts than cells in our bodies.  Just as all living things are part of the ecosystem around them, our bodies are ecosystems unto themselves.  We have a suite of bacteria and fungi that normally live within our bodies and cause no trouble.  In fact, when they are not there in the correct ratios we get sick because they assist with the breakdown and assimilation of nutrients and keep unwanted microorganisms in check.  So much in our modern environment is engineered to keep us from coming in contact with the dreaded germs that we are often inadvertently destroying the normal gut flora and opening up our bodies to numerous ailments, such as allergies and behavioral disorders.

The first environmental culprits are antibiotics.  While these are lifesavers for serious bacterial infections, they are indiscriminant in their ability to kill bacteria and therefore wipe out the good bugs along with the bad.  If these beneficial bacteria are not replaced then the body may become susceptible to opportunistic fungi or digestive disorders. How to re-inoculate the gut with beneficial bacteria will be the subject of my next post—stay tuned.

Secondly, we are encouraged by everyone from medical professionals to the advertising media to sanitize everything.  While it is true that we can pick up disease germs from our environment and it is reasonable to wash our hands and keep away from people who are obviously ill, it is not reasonable to disinfect every surface in the house and constantly sanitize our hands.  It is more important to keep our immune systems functioning optimally through a nutrient-rich, real food diet, adequate rest, exercise, and stress reduction techniques.  Then if we encounter a germ or two (billion) our body will dispense with them in short order.

Third, real food is dirty—literally.  Vegetables and some fruits grow on or close to the ground.  Animals wallow in dirt and mud.  While we of course wash off the dirt from vegetables and fruit and keep meat products refrigerated to prevent unwanted bacterial growth, these real foods come with a suite of bacteria and fungi that are beneficial.  We ingest these microorganisms with the food and continually refurbish our gut bacteria. But in order to sell food that has been contaminated, usually by inappropriate treatment of waste matter on factory farms, processors must irradiate, sterilize, pasteurize, sanitize, or otherwise process it.  Without going directly to farmers or farmer’s markets it is no longer possible to buy food that has not been treated in some way for a long shelf life.  Sure it’s convenient, but what it is doing to our health?

When a baby is born his digestive tract (gut) is sterile.  As he moves through his mother’s birth canal his gut is inoculated with whatever bacteria she has.  In this respect, a baby born by Caesarean section is at a disadvantage.  The baby who is subsequently breastfed receives beneficial bacteria from the milk, further inoculating his system with factors that facilitate digestion and protect against disease.  Breast milk is a living food, teeming with nutrients in the right proportions, microorganisms, enzymes, immune factors, etc that keep the baby healthy.  If he is weaned onto real unprocessed foods from the family table he will retain his healthy gut flora and subsequent good health.

Unfortunately, the majority of babies do not receive this benefit and start off with a sterilized, factory made, reconstituted formula (I’m one of them) that does not provide the correct microorganisms for gut health.  When they begin to eat table food they are fed sterilized mush out of jars.  These babies, children and adults are more susceptible to a host of ailments from asthma and autism to ADHD, digestive difficulties and later depression and schizophrenia (1).  Incidences of all of these ailments have skyrocketed as our food supply has become more and more processed.

In the same way that human milk is a living food, so is cow’s milk.  In the raw (unpasteurized, unadulterated) state milk from cows fed on pasture grass contains beneficial bacteria, enzymes, and other factors that facilitate the assimilation of its nutrients (2). It is much less likely to trigger allergies or intolerances than the pasteurized (or worse, ultra-pasteurized), taken apart (skim, 1%, 2%), homogenized milk available in the grocery store.  There were reasons for pasteurization when it was first developed in the late 1800s.  Milk is a superb medium for bacterial growth once it leaves the cow.  Dairies, especially near cities, were filthy places with rampant disease among both cows and milkers.  Rather than clean up the dairies pasteurization came into widespread use in urban areas.  Farmers and their families still drank it raw.  With the recent advent of factory farming and mega dairies of grain-fed cows living in their own filth the milk must be treated to be fit to drink, though even that is questionable.  It is a sad commentary on our modern way of life that purchasing raw milk is illegal in many states, and even where it is legal small dairy farmers are being harassed.  Again, follow the money—such is the power of the dairy industry.  Sustainably raised, pastured, healthy cows give perfectly safe milk, and the taste and health benefits make it worth seeking out.

If you want to be healthy allow your body to come into contact with bacteria.  The vast majority of them are either beneficial or harmless.  Don’t attempt to sterilize your environment.  The chemicals in all those sprays and cleaners are probably more toxic than the ‘germs’ they are killing.  Eat living food, i.e., food that will rot, spoil, mold or deteriorate, but eat it before it does.

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