Everywhere you go, germs and bacteria surround you and so does the fear of how they may harm you. The media is saturated with sensational stories about the hidden germs in hotel rooms, and the ever-encroaching threat of foreign and exotic, even life-threatening viruses. We have become obsessed with germs and bacteria, but bacteria are everywhere –around us and inside us. And even though we know that not all bacteria are harmful, we are constantly seeking to eliminate them… consequences be damned!
Creeping In: How The Seeds of Germaphobia Were Sowed
Our national obsession with germs and bacteria may have started as far back as the Civil War but seems to have taken root in the early public health campaigns of New York City. With the advent of clean drinking water and new sewer systems, came a new level of awareness regarding the importance of cleanliness and good hygiene as well as the hidden health threats looming in filthy, unsanitary conditions.
Many of our beliefs around germs and disease may have been fueled by the work of Pierre Bechamp, and later, Louis Pasteur. Pasteur is well known as the scientist who brought us “Germ Theory” and led us to believe that germs from the outside world invade our bodies and “cause” disease, which is why we have to kill them before they kill us. In an ironic twist, it turns out that Pasteur had plagiarized some of the work of Bechamp, who demonstrated that it’s the “terrain” (meaning the environment inside your body) that matters more than the germs themselves. Pasteur distorted the work of Bechamp and made a name for him self by asserting that it was the other way around. As he lay on his deathbed, he admitted that Bechamp was right when he uttered “The microbe is nothing, the terrain is everything.”
The proliferation of Pasteur’s “germ theory” combined with the success of early public health campaigns eventually gave rise to a new generation of household cleaners, personal care products, and drugs designed to kill bacteria and germs. Juliann Sivulka’s extensive research, presented in Stronger than Dirt: A Cultural History of Advertising Personal Hygiene in America, suggests some of the “anti-microbial” advertising began as early as 1875 and continued well throughout the twentieth century.
Without any guidance on how to lead healthier lives and strengthen our immune systems to better handle the biological challenges we might encounter, we’ve increasingly come to rely on anti-bacterial (and potentially toxic) products like bleach, ammonia, isopropyl alcohol, and more recently, hand sanitizers and anti-bacterial soaps, to assuage our fears. Many of these products now contain worrisome ingredients like Triclosan, a derivative of Agent Orange, whose over-use is creating new resistant strains of bacteria or “Super Bugs.” Ironically, these Super Bugs pose an even greater threat to our future ability to resist infection and disease, which begs the question is our fear of germs really helping us or could it be inadvertently hurting us? Knowing the genesis of our “germaphobia,” it’s not hard to see how the work of a misguided scientist coincided with larger commercial interests to bring us to this point.
Germaphobia: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
There’s no question that there are harmful bacteria that can make you very sick or even kill you –the SARS and Swine Flu strains being the most recent threats that come to mind. But we can’t let our fears of these viruses blind us to the potential harm that comes from trying to kill all germs and bacteria (real or imagined). Or more to the point, what’s the hidden price we pay when we use a product or take a drug that’s designed to kill “bad” bacteria but it also kills “good” bacteria in the process?
Our intestines are loaded with “good” bacteria (intestinal flora) that help break food down so the body can make use of its nutrients. Much of the “good” bacteria in your digestive tract also protects you from poisons in food and other infections like yeast infections which thrive on excess sugar in your gut. When you have an infection (like a bladder or upper respiratory infection), the antibiotics your doctor prescribes kill both good and bad bacteria. While you may rid yourself of one problem, in killing the “good” bacteria, you may be getting another problem. Women often get a yeast infection as a direct result of taking antibiotics for other infections. Then they are given a different antibiotic to address that problem and the cycle perpetuates. Or, as is often the case, the condition clears up only to return months or even years later.
This phenomenon, when played out on a big scale, can have significant consequences, as was the case in 2007, when there was a huge outbreak in drug-resistant staph infections. While this has been an ongoing problem in hospitals, it was rare to see an outbreak of this magnitude in schools and even the locker rooms of professional sports teams. Thanks to our incessant use of antibiotics, this bacterial strain has become immune to what was previously used to kill it. The result? Each year in the United States, we lose almost 18,000 people to this type of infection. Ironically, it seems the only cure is to further the cycle by creating stronger (and theoretically better) antibiotics.
The good news is that science is beginning to recognize that we’ve gone too far with antibiotics and is looking at the use of gentler, safer plant-based alternatives. Tea Tree essential oil, with its strong anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties, has shown promise in a number of different studies as a safe and effective way of killing “bad” bacteria without destroying the “good.” It is widely used in Australia (where it grows in abundance) to successfully treat conditions like yeast infections and Athlete’s Foot.
In his book “Life Helping Life,” Dr. Daniel Penoel, a renowned expert in medical aromatherapy, points out that Tea Tree oil (Melaleuca alternifolia) has great potential as an antibacterial agent, but its different from conventional antibiotics in that it attacks only destructive bacteria. It was “created from life to help life,” so it knows what to do. Other essential oils that show promise in the treatment of bacterial infections include Thyme, Oregano, and Clove Bud. And a number of other essential oils with their anti-viral properties, have been identified as strong immune system defenders. To put things in perspective, studying the use of essential oils in the treatment of illness and disease is a required part of the curriculum at medical schools in France, indicating their validity as a legitimate alternative.
The world is undeniably full of bacteria. Both modern medicine and society have long exceeded the boundaries of sensible practices in their respective approaches to dealing with it. Only by taking a step back and openly embracing natural alternatives will it be possible to successfully turn the tide of antibiotic-resistant infections that threatens us today.
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