Having all surfaces void of any germs and dirt, and as close to hospital-grade sterile is what we should all aspire to in our homes, right? Well, take a seat, because the answer is actually a resounding HELL NO. It’s actually making us sick – really sick. We talk to an incredibly well respected microbiologist who is at the top of his field and wants to set us straight on how we can improve our health, and of those around us.
Growing up, my childhood home was constantly filled with the smell of citrus: that sharp, chemical-filled tang that was often so strong it burned your nostrils.
At any time, under the sink you could find a dozen or so half-used bottles of harsh chemical cleaners. Most screamed out things like “Kills 99.99% of Germs” or “Seriously Tough on Dirt”
Back then, it was thought that cleanliness equaled healthiness. But in the last decade or so, those ideas have been turning around. In fact, just the last couple of years, there has been so much new research (apparently at least 50,000 new papers!) that the idea has been completely turned on its head.
Have we actually been cleaning ourselves sick?
Recently I had the amazing opportunity of speaking to Kiran Krishnan – a world-renowned microbiologist and researcher, who is an absolute expert and rock star in this field. He has developed some of the leading nutritional products in the US market and right now is involved in over 18 novel human clinical trials on probiotics and the human microbiome, as well as serving on the Scientific Advisory Board for eight companies in the industry.
So, full disclosure, with (incredible) credentials like that, I was expecting to start talking to him about the human microbiome and have one of two things happen: I would either immediately feel completely out of my depth, or finding my brain wandering off to the same place to goes when someone starts trying to explain the rules of cricket to me. But Kiran explained the microbiome to me in ways that actually made sense – and both thrilled and terrified me in the process.
As someone who has an autoimmune disease (Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis) and seem to be hearing of more and more women facing health issues, I’m always interested in hearing from leading health professionals about why the heck we’re getting so sick. And Kiran had the answers, and solutions and more for so many of the things that ail us.
Here’s what I learned and that I need you to hear about, immediately:
The Microbiome Is ESSENTIAL to Our Health – Also, Our Bodies Are Made Up Of More Microbes Than Human Genomes (We’re Basically Walking Rainforests)
Just how important is the microbiome? Kiran says it’s essential, because if you understand the microbiome you begin to see that it influences virtually every aspect of our health.
“Let’s start with the numbers,” he says.
“The human genome has somewhere around 22,000 functional genes – and if you’re not familiar with genomic that sounds like a lot, right? But keep in mind that an earthworm has about 22,000 functional genes. So, we’re not actually that much more sophisticated than an earthworm!
“But then the question arises like how are we so cool, right? How are we at the top of the food chain and the the top of the evolutionary ladder? Well, that’s been because we have over two and a half million microbial genes in our system – that’s a large component of our genomic capability. And remember, genes code for protein, and proteins take action in the body, so a lot of our biochemical and metabolic capabilities come from microbes that we housed in our system. If we didn’t have the microbes, we would be limited to our measly 22,000 genes which barely codes for anything.”
Ok, so the fact that we essentially have 150 to 200 times more microbial DNA in our system than human DNA, really messes with my head.
But it’s with that knowledge that Kiran explains the human body is more like a little walking rainforest – with this perfect little balance of things happening inside it to keep it flourishing. He suggests (as does all the research from the last five years!) that the vast majority of chronic health conditions can be traced back to some disruption in our microbial ecosystem.
“When we disrupt our ecosystem, or we have the absence of certain microbes in their genes, or we have an overabundance and the presence of certain microbes in their genes, those genes impact our day-to-day outcomes,” says Kiran.
But What the Heck Are We Doing to Disrupt Our EcoSystem?? How Do We Stop Harming It?
The bad news is, we’re doing things to disrupt our ecosystem on a daily basis.
Understanding the microbiome is only something that has come to our attention in the last decade, so up until that point, we’ve been building a world that doesn’t take it into account. And unfortunately that world we have built is a very anti-microbial world.
“One great example is pesticides,” says Kiran. “Take a pesticide like glyphosate – Roundup. That was developed in the early 1970s and the idea is that there’s this compound that interferes with the process making aromatic amino acids by using a pathway called a shikimate pathway – what exactly that means isn’t important, but basically if you can’t make aromatic amimo acids, you’re going to die.”
“So, they looked at is and went, ‘okay, humans as a species don’t have the shikimate pathway, so that compound wouldn’t disrupt our ability to make aromatic amino acids. That’s only something bugs have.’”
“Well, in the last 10 years, data started to accumulate, that people who have lots of exposure to Roundup are developing all kinds of horrific conditions, including cancer.”
“So, we started wondering, what’s going wrong, how can it be toxic to humans if we don’t use the shikimate pathway? Well, it turns out, our microbes use the shikimate pathway.”
As it turns out, there’s plenty of substances that may seem like they’re doing no harm to us at humans, but are actually disrupting our microbiome. And they can be found in a number of items – personal care, cosmetics, cleaning products, perfumes, even our tap water.
Another way we’re wiping out our microbiome is through overuse of antibiotics. Sure, they’re often life-saving medications and when used correctly they are a godsend. But, unfortunately they’re often overprescribed. “Even the CDC states that at lease 50% of the antibiotics prese=cribbed are unnecessary because they’re prescribed for things like viral infections,” says Kiran. “They’re often essential, but they’re like an atomic bomb to the gut microbiome.”
HELP. How Do We Fix it?!? And How Do We Keep Our Kids Safe?
Okay, so Kiran’s delivered the bad news, and now he’s following it up with the good news: we can help our microbe to be healthy! Here’s what he suggests:
Clean Up Your Cosmetics
“Number one is reducing exposure to things that we know harm the microbiome,” says Kiran. “So your personal care products, start cleaning those up. The more natural you can go, that don’t have parabens and other chemical preservatives in, the better. For me, I started one product at a time – I started with switching to a natural deodorant and went from there. I get that it’s too daunting to look in your bathroom cabinet and change it all at once.”
“Go organic so you now you’re getting less exposure to things like pesticides and herbicides,” says Kiran. But he gets that it’s often the expensive option so suggests trying to produce as much of your own as possible through a small vege garden.
Ditch the Cleaning Products
“What we don’t want is a sterile household,” says Kiran. Contradictory to what we’ve been told over the years, a sterile environment is only one you want to have in a hospital operating theatre. It’s not what you want in your home.
And there’s data behind this, he tells.
“There was a big study out of Finland on allergies – there’s a town in Finland at the border that’s relatively close to a town in Russia, it’s around the same geographic area,” says Kiran. “They noticed that the town in Russia had far fewer rates of allergies and asthma in kids than the Finnish town. So they launched this study to understand what was going on. Basically, they came to the conclusion that in Finland, the households are too sterile. They were using cleaning products all day long, sanitizing every surface and their windows and doors were closed a lot more often. Sterilising all the surfaces changes the microbial ecosystem in the household – and the more the diverse the microbial ecosystem in the house is, the healthier you will be.”
So how do we clean? “In my home, we just clean most surfaces with water with a couple of drops of essential oil,” says Kiran. “If we bring home raw chicken and get its juice on the counter, I’ll sterilize that. If there’s mould, I’ll sterilize that – otherwise, 99% of the time it’s just water and essential oils.”
Get Your Kids in the Dirt
Kiran says kids (and adults!) should have prescribed outdoor time – three times a week, for at least half an hour at a time. That’s outside with fresh air, playing in the dirt. If you can get into an area which isn’t sprayed with pesticides, that’s where you want to be headed.
Because, yip, dirt is good for us and it’s particularly good for kids.
Kiran talked me through a study in the US where a daycare centre brought in a dirt pile for the kids to play with a few times a week. It turned out, the kids in that daycare, compared to the one that didn’t, had far fewer incidences of asthma and allergies. It turns out, dirt is actually our friend.
Get a Good Probiotic
Kiran suggests eating well, ensuring that you get plenty of roughage in your diet – you want lots of soluble and insoluble fibres. Getting enough to look after your biome can be hard work! Kiran suggests taking a spore-based probiotic, which have been proven to support a balanced gut microbiome.
“We’ve published at least four papers on showing that when you added a spore-based probiotic into their system,” he says. “Whether your kid or an adult, it brings about a significant amount of balance within the microbiome and actually improves diversity quite a bit.”
Kiran is one of the geniuses behind Gutsi, who make a spore probiotic (I’ve been using it – and giving it to our kids and have to say, I recommend it!).
Get a Dog
Studies show that having a dog is good for your microbiome. Kiran reasons that it’s because dogs are outside animals. “They go out and roll around and pick up microbes in the garden and bring it into the house and diversify our microbiome!”
Want to know what the number one killer is out there at the moment? Hands down, it’s stress, says Kiran. It’s stress, because the effect it has on the microbiome, can be very disruptive and devastating. And then, the knock-on effect is wild, with it being the root cause of everything from heart disease, to auto-immune disease, to neurological disease.
“There was a 2015 publication in the Frontiers of Immunology, which is a well regarded journal, and this was a met analysis paper – that means it’s a paper that reviewed a bunch of studies on the topic,” says Kiran. “They concluded that stress-induced microbiome disruption that lead to things like leaky gut was the number one driver or mortality and morbidity – worldwide. We’re talking about heart disease, diabetes, obesity, cancers, neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and so on. All of these conditions are driven in part by a disrupted gut, with microbiome stress being on of the big drivers of that.”
Kiran suggests getting a decent amount of sleep and finding the things that work best for you in your life to alleviate stress. That alone could make a huge difference to your health.