The stories reaching the headlines these days about serious life-threatening bacterial diseases sound like a gory sci-fi novel with no happy ending, like "The Invasion Of The Body Snatchers," or "Alien." Where did this race of super bacteria come from? Outbreaks of illnesses caused from bacteria, like E. coli and salmonella, have fueled our germ phobias. It's understandable that the public is alarmed. We have lived somewhat symbiotically for several millennia with these bugs, so why now have these bacteria become serious killers?
In the not so far distant past, I can recall dealing with patients that had these kinds of infections, but as long as I took the necessary precautions, I had nothing to fear. Now we read about flesh eating bacteria that infect small wounds, with the only treatment being amputation of the affected area before the bacteria claims the victim's life! What happened?
All of life has its cycles. A particular strain of flu will rear its ugly head then fall into a lull. Forgotten but not gone, just resting until an opportunity presents itself for it to flourish once again. Just as we humans have the ability to evolve and survive, so do smaller living creatures like bacteria. Instead of evolving, bacteria mutate to survive. They were here before us, and most microbiologists agree they will be here long after we are gone.
Many disease-producing bacteria (not the super bugs) live in symbiosis with other more friendly bacteria on our skin, and on the mucous membranes that line the mouth, nose, throat, intestines and other areas of our bodies. When this balance is disturbed through illness or drug therapy, we loose more of the friendly bacteria, leaving the stronger, less friendly bacteria behind to thrive.
Most experts want to blame the use of antibiotic therapy in humans for the problem, and although this is in part true, a much larger part of the problem is caused by industrialized feed lots where every chicken, turkey, hog and cow is injected with antibiotics to prevent stress-related illness. Animals often find themselves packed in row after row, sometimes not having enough room to move, standing on concrete, breathing methane saturated air. When this happens, they cannot resist disease through their own natural defense. Thus enters the antibiotic.
We often respond to these kinds of problems by thinking we can sterilize everything. Not only do we sterilize our environment, we also try to sterilize our bodies. We've gone nuts for antibacterial everything. Cleanliness may be next to godliness, but these days, we may be taking it a bit too far. Stuart Levy, MD, director of the Center for Adaptation Genetics and Drug Resistance at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston, worries that banishing bacteria has become a national obsession. The shelves are lined with antibacterial dish soaps, shower gels, and laundry detergents. The other day I picked up a box of Q-Tips (and put them back), and they, too, were antibacterial. Give me a break!
Ever notice how dry your skin feels after using some of the antibacterial hand or dish soaps? Yes, indeed, you may have killed some bacteria, but you also changed the bacterial flora on your skin. When you use these soaps, your skin may feel dry or cracked. Plus, you've reduced the number of less harmful bacteria, and therefore reduced your skin's ability to resist the very infection you were trying to ward off!
Recent studies done by Dr. Levy found that triclosan, a chemical found in many antibacterials, targets a critical enzyme required for cell-wall formation in E. coli. He feels that these chemicals with targeting mechanisms may prompt bacteria to become resistant to the very products used to kill them.
Your best bet for staying clean? A natural based soap that contains olive or other natural oils such as almond or johoba. Wash, but don't scrub your skin dry! Most bacteria cannot resist the heat and friction of your washer and dryer. Bacteria have no ability to mutate against heat. The same goes for your kitchen and bathroom surfaces. No need to go overboard. Just keep things clean.
The next time you're at the store, do yourself and your pocketbook a favor. Stick with the less expensive soaps and natural cleansers, they're your best bet. Till next time, Rebecca.