The subject of gut health became of great importance to me after six rounds of antibiotics for a jaw infection led me down the path of a weakened immune system due to the complete eradication of my gut flora. Not only did I not have enough bacteria to process food properly, I inadvertently compromised my gut health and obtained a Clostridium diffiicile (C-diff)infection that ultimately became antibiotic resistant to the subsequent four rounds of antibiotics that left me tremendously ill and on the cusp of immediate hospitalization for just over six months.
Four months after the C-diff infection, I attended a lecture on the topic of antibiotic resistant bacteria that can lead to sepsis and the effects that the antibiotics have on eradicating the beneficial bacteria that resides in our gut. I inquired further with the guest speaker and she referred me to the book by Justin and Erica Sonnenburg, PhD’s , titled, “The Good Gut”. It became urgently clear that the gut flora is of vast importance when it comes to weight, mood and long-term health and how the use of sanitizing solutions used in our homes and on our hands are actually killing off the bacteria that we can use to benefit our health. By sanitized, I am referring to the use of bleach, alcohol or chemical products used to clean surfaces, clothes, floors and hands. Couple the sanitizing cleaning products with antibiotic usage and a “perfect storm” of compromised gut health ensues. According to Michael Pollan, “You acquire most of the initial microbes in your gut community from your parents, but others are picked up from the environment. “The world is covered in a fine patina of feces,” as the Stanford microbiologist Stanley Falkow tells students. The new sequencing tools have confirmed his hunch: Did you know that house dust can contain significant amounts of fecal particles? Or that, whenever a toilet is flushed, some of its contents are aerosolized? Knight’s lab has sequenced the bacteria on toothbrushes. This news came during breakfast, so I didn’t ask for details, but got them anyway: “You want to keep your toothbrush a minimum of six feet away from a toilet,” one of Knight’s colleagues told me.” (Pollan, 2013)
What we use to clean our homes and bodies can either help or hinder our gut health. This is due to the competition for resources in the gut. There is only so much food available for both, “beneficial or pathogenic” bacteria. If a particular bacterium can out compete other types then it can colonize the gut flora and protect or invade depending on the outcome. Fiber and sugar intake or Microbiota Accessible Carbohydrates (MACs) seem to be of vital importance when feeding the gut flora according to Justin and Erica Sonnenburg, PhD’s. The Sonnenburg’s advise us to eat more plants that have complex fibers, such as roughage vegetables, fruits and legumes along with “live” pro bacteria such as yogurts, kimchi, and sauerkrauts to feed our beneficial gut biome and out compete any “new comers” that could potentially cause harm such as E. coli bacterial ridden foods or fluids.
Due to the “western cultures war on germs”, the use of Clorox bleach wipes for example can be attributed to killing 99% of bacterial and viral agents according to the packaging. The efficacy of Clorox cleaning wipes can be seen in Table 1 below:
|Table 1. Clorox® Disinfecting Wipes Kill Common Germs, Viruses and Bacteria
|Avian Influenza A
|Escherichia coli O157:H7 (E. coli)
|Herpes simplex virus type I
|Human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1)
|Listeria monocytogenes (Listeria)
|Pseudomonas aeruginosa (Pseudomonas)
|Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)
|Salmonella choleraesuis (Salmonella)
|Staphylococcus aureus (Staph)
|Streptococcus pyogenes (Strep)
The manufactures see this product as a helpful protective solution to aid in keeping people healthier. It appears from my initial research that this product and products like this are actually setting us up for more illness. The use of bleach products was the only agent that tackled the C-diff infectious bacteria in my home and on my clothes. It was a stressful time trying to protect my family and friends from the C-diff infection that had taken over my gut.
According to the Mayo Clinic, “To help prevent the spread of C. difficile, hospitals and other health care facilities follow strict infection-control guidelines. If you have a friend or family member in a hospital or at home, don’t be afraid to remind caregivers to follow the recommended precautions.
Preventive measures include:Thorough cleaning. In any setting, all surfaces should be carefully disinfected with a product that contains chlorine bleach. C. difficile spores can survive routine cleaning products that don’t contain bleach.” (Mayo Clinic, 2018)
While it was imperative that all surfaces and clothes be cleaned with chlorine bleach while I was infected for four months to avoid spreading the infection to family and friends, the “chlorine quarantine” may have been placing all in contact with me at risk for compromising their own gut health because the house was too clean. According to Erica and Justin Sonnenburg, “Westerners take antibiotics on a fairly regular basis and sterilize our environment for fear of exposing ourselves to pathogenic bacteria. These behaviors mean we are reducing the chances of acquiring new beneficial bacteria.” (Sonneburg, 2016)
The usage of antibacterial cleaners and hand soaps has good intentions in mind, however these intentions are leading to the creation of super bugs. According to Coco Ballantyne, “When a bacterial population is placed under a stressor—such as an antibacterial chemical—a small subpopulation armed with special defense mechanisms can develop. These lineages survive and reproduce as their weaker relatives perish. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is the governing maxim here, as antibacterial chemicals select for bacteria that endure their presence.” (Ballantyne, 2007) This is how the evolution of the “superbug” has occured. According to Ballantyne,“ As bacteria develop a tolerance for these compounds there is potential for also developing a tolerance for certain antibiotics. This phenomenon, called cross-resistance, has already been demonstrated in several laboratory studies using triclosan, one of the most common chemicals found in antibacterial hand cleaners, dishwashing liquids and other wash products. “Triclosan has a specific inhibitory target in bacteria similar to some antibiotics,” says epidemiologist Allison Aiello at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. When bacteria are exposed to triclosan for long periods of time, genetic mutations can arise. Some of these mutations endow the bacteria with resistance to isoniazid, an antibiotic used for treating tuberculosis, whereas other microbes can supercharge their efflux pumps—protein machines in the cell membrane that can spit out several types of antibiotics, Aiello explains. These effects have been demonstrated only in the laboratory, not in households and other real world environments, but Aiello believes that the few household studies may not have been long enough. “It’s very possible that the emergence of resistant species takes quite some time to occur…; the potential is there,” she says. Apart from the potential emergence of drug resistant bacteria in communities, scientists have other concerns about antibacterial compounds. Both triclosan and its close chemical relative triclocarban (also widely used as an antibacterial), are present in 60 percent of America’s streams and rivers, says environmental scientist Rolf Halden, co founder of the Center for Water and Health at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Both chemicals are efficiently removed from wastewater in treatment plants but end up getting sequestered in the municipal sludge, which is used as fertilizer for crops, thereby opening a potential pathway for contamination of the food we eat, Halden explains. “We have to realize that the concentrations in agricultural soil are very high,” and this, “along with the presence of pathogens from sewage, could be a recipe for breeding antimicrobial resistance” in the environment, he says.” (Ballantyne, 2007)
The uses of antimicrobial body washes to household chlorine cleaners are doing the western lifestyle some good. However, what we need to question is what are these products and “clean living” doing to our microbiota?” The importance of antibiotics to civilization has been a life-saving drug choice in our civilization. Unfortunately, there are unintended consequences to this level of cleanliness and the war of bacteria has left our civilization missing important microbes such as Helicobacter pylori(H.pylori). According to the “missing microbiota hypothesis,” described by Pollan, “we depend on microbes like H. pylori to regulate various metabolic and immune functions, and their disappearance is disordering those systems. The loss is cumulative: Each generation is passing on fewer of thesemicrobes,” (Paollan, 2013)
Ballantyne, C. 2007. Strange but True: Antibacterial Products May Do More Harm Than Good.Antibacterial soaps and other cleaners may actually be aiding in the development of superbacteria. Scientific American. June 7, 2017. Retrieved from: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/strange-but-true-antibacterial products-may-do-more-harm-than-good/
Mayo Clinic. 2018. Clostridium difficile. Retrieved from: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/cdifficile/symptoms-causes/syc 20351691
Pollan, M. 2013. Some of my best friends are germs. New York Times. May 15, 2013. Retrieved from:http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/19/magazine/say-hello-to-the 100-trillion-bacteria-that-make-up-your-microbiome.html
Sonnenburg J. & Sonnenburg E. 2012. The good gut. Taking control of your weight. Your mood. And your long-term health.
Sonnenburg J. & Sonnenburg E. 2016. The extinction inside our guts. Los Angeles Times. February 25, 2016. Retrieved from: http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op ed/la-oe-0225-sonnenburg-gut-bacteria-extinction-20160225-story.html