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Mythbusting Bacteria: Are Germs Really as Bad as You Think?

May 04, 2016

“Aah, I got nature, I got nature on my hand! [Natalie wipes off the dirt with a leaf] What are you doing? You can’t clean nature with nature!” –Adrian Monk

Germs are everywhere, and that’s natural. At some point, though, people decided they were bad. Not just bad – our mortal enemies. Our environments have thus become increasingly sterile, and our use of sanitizers has gone through the roof. However, the more research we do, the more evidence we find that some exposure to germs is actually good for us, and chemicals in sanitizers may do more harm than the good they cause by disinfecting.

Germs Are Your Friends (Sort of)

If you’re new to the medical community’s “hygiene hypothesis,” it basically states that exposure to some germs is healthy. It allows young children to practice fighting off germs, conditioning their immune system and in turn lowering their risk of developing childhood allergies such as asthma.

Studies show that in first world countries where childhood vaccines, dairy pasteurization, and filtered water are commonplace, the number of infectious diseases decline as allergies increase. While you might say that you’d rather have asthma than filariasis – (and we’d agree!) – there is still a threshold where the over-sterilization of an environment can be counterproductive to our health and wellbeing.

So Where’s the Balance?

Glad you asked. As nutritionists, we’re not here to lecture on the use of Lysol wipes or hand sanitizer. Where our knowledge truly comes in handy is in helping your body get the right nutrition to help fortify its immune system and digestive system.

Prebiotics and Probiotics and Antibiotics, Oh My

What many people don’t realize is that some forms of bacteria are actually necessary to maintain health. Our skin is actually covered with protective bacteria and our digestive tract is populated with as much bacteria as we have cells in our body!  These good bacteria, known as PRObiotics help protect us from invasive pathogens and help digest our food.

Antibiotics are veritable life savers in how they kill bad bacteria that overgrows and makes us sick. Unfortunately, they kill off the good bacteria too. So whenever you take antibiotics, it’s important to rebuild the good bacteria, lest the harmful bacteria take up residence in the void created after antibiotics kill off both the pathogens and the healthy bacteria in your gut.

There are a number of ways to promote the growth of good bacteria. Taking Probiotics in pill form is a good way to fortify your system. Nutritionally, ingesting regular amounts of fermented foods like yogurt, kimchi, kombucha, pickles, fermented vegetables and tempeh is another. Fiber feeds our good bacteria, so foods high in fiber are also a great way to keep our good bugs proliferating. The fiber in fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts and seeds all help promote the growth of healthy bacteria.

In Zing Bars, we actually include a specific type of fiber from chicory root.  This is known as a PREbiotic because it specifically feeds the healthy bacteria in our gut.  Other foods that include prebiotic fiber are onions, garlic, dandelion greens, leaks, asparagus and onions.  Adding these to your diet regularly will help feed those important good bacteria, improve your digestion and fortify your immune system.

Other Excellent Wellness Practices

There are plenty of things you can do to stay healthy in our world full of germs. Rather than reach for the nearest antibacterial goo, here are a few other ideas:

  • Get adequate sleep to strengthen your immune system.
  • Be active. Regular physical activity boosts immunity so you can spend less time fighting colds and other germ-based ailments. Physical activity also helps the digestive process.
  • Eat wholesome, fiber-rich foods to nourish your body and your bacteria.
  • Surround yourself with positive people.

In Summation

kids outside

With summer just around the corner, and kids excited to play outside – it’s in everybody’s best interest to let them go get dirty. Being exposed to germs with a healthy immune system gets back to the hygiene hypothesis we talked about earlier.

It’s not about avoiding germs all together, it’s about having a fine-tuned immune system that can handle them when they come our way.  Some new research even points to the importance of getting dirty because soil contains beneficial bacteria. Kids who play in the dirt actually fortify their immune system!

By eating nourishing foods, playing in nature and embracing good bacteria, you’ll have the energy and vitality to conquer whatever bad germs you encounter.

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