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A recent NPR article helped shed some light on a fascinating new field of scientific inquiry, namely how important our microbe population is to keeping us healthy and alive. We are rapidly coming to understand that we cannot live with our microbes, the trillions of bacteria, fungi, and other microbes that live in and on our bodies.

These microbes live on our skin and in our guts. They live in our noses and in the mucus our body uses to protect itself. Scientists featured in the article report that our bodies are home to 10 times more microbial cells than bodily cells. Their numbers are so staggering that as much as 99% of the genes in (and on) our bodies are microbes’ genes and not our own. But it is a mistake to think of these microbes as foreign. They are as much a part of what makes us “us” as the color of our eyes and our genetic inheritance.

Me and My Microbiome
Scientists are calling your microbiome, which includes the critical balance of healthy bacteria in the gut, the 11th organ system because of its many functions. Your microbiome:

  • Supports healthy digestion and immunity from your center, your gut
  • Shapes the way your immune system handles invaders by “teaching” the body which microbes are healthy and which aren’t from birth
  • Contributes to how much fat you store and how much energy you have
  • Signals the brain to impact your mood and behavior

The NPR article went on to reveal that Americans are at a microbial disadvantage due to the inundation of antibiotics in our society. We are exposed to a smaller pool of microbes and so our microbiomes are less diverse. A diverse microbiome is a strong microbiome that may be able to handle health challenges more effectively.

Remembering that our microbiome is such a pervasive part of our health is key. Not all microbes are germs to be avoided at all costs, and you need healthy microbes such as beneficial bacteria to stay healthy.

Source: “Staying Healthy May Mean Learning to Love our Microbiomes” NPR blog, July 2013

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Germs are a big concern for many people. Hand wipes and antibacterial soaps are commonly found in hand bags and on sinks as we scrub and wipe at the sign of any possible contamination. The fear that a pathogenic organism might infect us has created multi-billion dollar industries specializing in antibacterial ingredients that are added to every day soaps and personal care products.

But did you know that washing your hands thoroughly for at least 15 seconds with warm soapy water is as effective as using antibacterial soap? And did you know that antibacterial soap may be contributing to the increase in antibacterial resistance and has been linked to the development of allergies? The antibacterial ingredient in soap—triclosan—was recently studied along with other chemicals commonly found in personal care products.

In the study, published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, urine levels of seven endocrine disrupting chemicals (chemicals known to interfere with normal hormone function) were analyzed from 860 children aged 6 to 8. Levels of these chemicals were compared to blood levels of the antibody immunoglobulin E (IgE), a common immune marker for allergies. The researchers found that those children who had the highest amounts of triclosan (a chemical also found in mouthwash and toothpaste) also had the highest IgE levels. In addition, those children with the highest levels of antibacterial parabens—propyl-paraben and butyl-paraben—had the highest levels of IgE antibodies to environmental allergens like pollen and pet dander.

Interestingly, the three chemicals found associated to allergy response all have antibacterial qualities. Senior researcher Corinne Keet from Johns Hopkins Children’s Center stated, “This finding highlights the antimicrobial properties of these agents as a probable driving force behind their effect on the immune system.”

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