Dirtying Up Our Diets
July 05, 2012
By Dr. Mercola
Asthma, hay fever, eczema, food allergies, lupus, multiple sclerosis and other immune- mediated afflictions are all on the rise.
According to some estimates, allergies and diseases of the immune system have doubled, tripled or even quadrupled in the last few decades, with some studies indicating that more than half of the U.S. population has at least one clinically diagnosable allergy.i
At an alarming rate, people’s immune systems are over-reacting to substances that should be harmless, leading to allergies; in others, their immune systems are malfunctioning and attacking parts of their own body – the very definition of autoimmune disease.
What’s causing all of this strife to our immune systems may sound like an unlikely culprit, but in fact it makes perfect sense...
Your Body is Crying Out for “Dirt”...
Writing in the New York Times, Jeff Leach uses the example of the simple farmer’s market as an analogy of what’s missing from so many of our lives. In a word: dirt. The heads of lettuce and bunches of carrots of yesteryear were awash in various microorganisms, and no one even considered that to be a problem.
Today much of our food is pasteurized, irradiated, sterilized and made so that bacteria – even the good kind – can no longer survive.
When there are outbreaks of food poisoning, the blame often falls on federal agencies to make the food supply cleaner, but what is overlooked is why our own immune systems failed to protect us from what should be normal bacterial exposures.
“ … by asking why an individual’s natural defenses failed, we insert personal responsibility into our national food safety strategy and draw attention to the much larger public health crisis, of which illness from food-borne pathogens is but a symptom of our minimally challenged and thus overreactive immune system.”
Ironically, the very advances that represent all that is modern in the world – hand sanitizers, treated water, refrigeration -- have created their very own set of diseases.
“Increasing evidence suggests that the alarming rise in allergic and autoimmune disorders during the past few decades is at least partly attributable to our lack of exposure to microorganisms that once covered our food and us.
As nature’s blanket, the potentially pathogenic and benign microorganisms associated with the dirt that once covered every aspect of our preindustrial day guaranteed a time-honored co-evolutionary process that established “normal” background levels and kept our bodies from overreacting to foreign bodies.
… In a world of hand sanitizer and wet wipes (not to mention double tall skinny soy vanilla lattes), we can scarcely imagine the preindustrial lifestyle that resulted in the daily intake of trillions of helpful organisms.
For nearly all of human history, this began with maternal transmission of beneficial microbes during passage through the birth canal — mother to child. However, the alarming increase in the rate of Caesarean section births means a potential loss of microbiota from one generation to the next.
And for most of us in the industrialized world, the microbial cleansing continues throughout life.
Nature’s dirt floor has been replaced by tile; our once soiled and sooted bodies and clothes are cleaned almost daily; our muddy water is filtered and treated; our rotting and fermenting food has been chilled; and the cowshed has been neatly tucked out of sight. While these improvements in hygiene and sanitation deserve applause, they have inadvertently given rise to a set of truly human-made diseases.”
The Rise of “Sterile Environment” Diseases
The hygiene hypothesis – the theory that early exposure to dirt and germs programs your immune system to properly identify and countermand threats – has been gaining slow but steady support over the past decade. According to this theory, if you're healthy, exposure to bacteria and viruses can serve as "natural vaccines" that strengthen your immune system and provide long-lasting immunity against disease.
You’re not meant to exist in a bubble, isolated from life. You’re designed to spend time outside, play in the dirt, be active -- and to get dirty and encounter and develop lasting immunity against potentially infectious agents.
This would seem like common sense, but in today's world of obsessive sterilization and savvy marketing, many have been brainwashed into treating dirt as enemy number one, to be eliminated at any cost. There's an antibacterial solution for every area of your life and if you’re not wiping down your counters and cleaning your hands with antibacterial soap, you’re taking antibiotics, which are grossly overused.
Your diet, too, is probably largely devoid of the natural bacteria that makes food – and you – healthy, as most of what is consumed is highly processed, refined and pasteurized. This over-zealous avoidance of bacteria and viruses comes at a steep price, the rise of numerous related diseases, including:
- Asthma and allergies
- Immune system diseases (autoimmune disorders, etc.)
- Heart disease
Neuroscientist Charles Raison explained:ii
"Since ancient times benign microorganisms, sometimes referred to as 'old friends,' have taught your immune system how to tolerate other harmless microorganisms, and in the process, reduce inflammatory responses that have been linked to the development of most modern illnesses, from cancer to depression."
Quite simply, if you're “too clean,” you deprive yourself of the exposure to bacteria that your body needs in order to program itself to keep inflammation at bay, as well as to respond properly when a threat does occur. The answer is not to eat “dirty” food … but food that has been grown in healthy soil and contains beneficial bacteria is incredibly important.
This is One Reason Why Fermented Foods are So Important
Establishment of normal gut flora in the first 20 days or so of life plays a crucial role in appropriate maturation of your baby's immune system. Babies who develop abnormal gut flora are left with compromised immune systems, and then they are typically vaccinated, which can be a recipe for disaster. Vaccinations were originally developed for children with perfectly healthy immune systems, but according to Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride, children with unbalanced gut flora are not fit to be vaccinated according to the standard vaccination protocol.
The end result is increasing numbers of children with autism, learning disabilities, neurological disorders, psychiatric disorders, immune disorders, and digestive problems, all because of a lack of exposure to the proper bacteria in early life.
Many women of reproductive age are deficient in beneficial bacteria—a deficiency that transfers to their babies and may set the stage for any number of problems. The solution is simple: nourish your gut flora with a probiotic-rich diet. Some examples of naturally fermented foods that are outstanding sources of beneficial bacteria include:
- Various fermented vegetables, including cabbage, turnips, eggplant, cucumbers, onions, squash and carrots
- Lassi (an Indian yoghurt drink, traditionally enjoyed before dinner)
- Yogurt made from organic raw milk
- Fermented milk such as kefir (a quart of unpasteurized kefir has far more active bacteria than you can possibly purchase in any probiotics supplement, and it's simple to make at home)
- Natto (fermented soy)
Eating fermented foods like these regularly will help to "reseed" your body's beneficial bacteria, which is under constant assault from antibiotics, chlorinated water, antibacterial soap, the metabolic byproducts of stress, and poor diet, especially sugar consumption. Eating sugar actually nourishes the bad or pathogenic bacteria yeast and fungi in your gut. So, tending to the bacteria in your gut is an ongoing process, much like tending to a flower garden.
If you do not consume traditionally fermented foods on a regular basis, a high-quality probiotic supplement is one of the few I do recommend – but one of the major results of eating a healthy diet like the one described in my nutrition plan is that you stimulate your beneficial gut bacteria to flourish naturally.
More Tips for Living “Dirty”
It’s high time for many to get reacquainted with some “old friends,” those beneficial bacteria that have been a part of civilization for eons. This is important not only for you, but also for your children, as the future of your child's immune system is in your hands. You can help your child’s immunity build up the natural resistance it needs by:
- Letting your child be a child. Allow your kids to play outside and get dirty.
- Avoiding the use of antibacterial soaps and other antibacterial household products. Simple soap and water is all you need when washing your hands.
- Avoiding unnecessary antibiotics, including not only medically (for instance, taking antibiotics to target a viral infection, for which they are useless) but also in your food, which is a major source of antibiotic exposure
- Serving locally grown or organic meats that do not contain antibiotics
- Educating yourself on the pros and cons of vaccines, which further manipulate your immune system, and making informed decisions about their use
One final piece of advice that I’d like to echo comes from Leach, who points out that a simple visit to your local farmer’s market may help you get back in touch with your more down to earth roots:
“As we move deeper into a “postmodern” era of squeaky-clean food and hand sanitizers at every turn, we should probably hug our local farmers’ markets a little tighter. They may represent our only connection with some “old friends” we cannot afford to ignore.”