Friday, October 1, 2010

Old Friends

As I prepare to enjoy my long weekend before classes start for the Fall quarter (my first is on Tuesday afternoon), I've spent the morning in my comfy chair reading about dirt.

Speaking more specifically, I've been reading about microscopic bugs and a class of bacteria (Mycobacteria vaccae) that turn out to be particularly beneficial to humankind. Since I'm planning to spend most of the day at home-keeping (especially vacuuming, doing dishes, dusting, and generally tidying up after an insanely busy month), it seemed to be a fitting way to use my morning reading time.

Among the now-old magazines piled on my coffee table (old because I've almost completely stopped buying magazines, opting now for digital versions, library holdings, or quarterly or bi-annual publications) I unearthed the April 2010 issue of Body + Soul, the "Whole Living" periodical from the Martha Stewart bunch. I had picked it up because one of the teasers included mention of natural ways to lower cholesterol--guaranteed to arouse my interest. As I thumbed through it, I noticed a couple of articles on the cleanliness/antibacterial mania engendered by the H1N1 scare. Since I'm an avowed bug-(and dirt-) worshipper, I snagged a copy and it's been on the stack ever since.

The article "Talking Dirty" by Rachel Dowd considered the down-side of antibacterial cleansers and the like, quoting one researcher's observation that the challenges bacteria present to our immune system actually teach our bodies "how to deal with germs."

Now, I'm sure I've mentioned over the years that despite my mostly genetically induced heart disease, I'm ridiculously healthy. I can't tell you when I caught my last cold. I haven't had flu since I came back to the States at age 15. Some of my doctors tell me that the large doses of statins I take to lower my astronomical cholesterol may have something to do with this, and they're probably right. But I also think it has a great deal to do with where I grew up and how much dirt I put up with in my house.

It's not that I'm innately slovenly. But I doubt that many in my acquaintance allow spiders to have their way to the extent I do, or that think tidying up a stack of magazines is more important to a well-kept home than a dusted tabletop. I actually felt sorry for the spiders that reside in many window-corners in my ancient house when I turned the hoover on them a couple of weeks ago in a fit of pre-autumnal cleaning. The usefulness of the little beasties is quite apparent when one sucks up not only the webs and the fuzzy little egg caches, but also the remains of the other bugs--particularly mosquitoes and ants--from which the spiders have protected me.

My childhood in Asia seems to have exposed me to enough influenza viruses that I've emerged completely unscathed over many a seasonal outbreak. Before my last surgery my DO talked me into getting a precautionary shot, and I'll likely get one this year to satisfy my insurance company, but I probably don't need them.

At any rate, the article reminds us that slathering ourselves with antibacterial preparations (like those found in the dispensers next to the elevators at school) isn't just unnecessary (and probably ineffectual) but potentially harmful. By rubbing out all bacteria, we risk losing the ability to fight off new species or varieties.

I was rather pleased to learn that getting down and dirty may be good for the psyche. According to an April 2007 article in Science Daily, Mycobacterium vaccae seems to activate the neurons that produce serotonin, and thus produce an anti-depressant effect. Chris Lowry (author of a study that tested the effect of M. vaccae on mice, and mentioned in the Body + Soul article) wonders, as a result, "if we shouldn't all be spending more time playing in the dirt." These bugs are referred to as "Old Friends" in the bacteria-study biz, because their ubiquity has generated health benefits throughout human evolution. For more on the "old friends" relationship between microorganisms and the increase in maladies like allergies and autoimmune diseases, see "Should auld acquaintance be forgot. . . " by Holger Breithaupt in the December 2004 issue of EMBO Reports (European Molecular Biology Organization).

I do wish more people would relax about a bit of dust and the occasional muddy footprint tracked into the house, and concentrate on really effective ways of preventing outbreaks of the bad guys like salmonella--things like tossing dishcloths or sponges into the washing machine frequently, cooking one's meat properly, and wiping the cutting board down with soap and water, or a bit of lemon juice. Overusing stronger concoctions may turn around and bite us in the backside if the bad bugs learn to resist antibiotics.

The all-time best guide I've found to cultivating a good-bug friendly house can be found in Ellen Sandbeck's book, Green Barbarians. I've touted this small compendium of very good advice a couple of times, and still plan to review it for B&N and Amazon, but for now I recommend the chapters on the Barbarian Body and the Barbarian Table. Some of my favorite people wouldn't be caught dead without a bottle of hand sanitizer, and some day it may kill them. But Sandbeck's fans may well survive bacterial Armageddon, because we can live with mother Earth--in more ways than one.

Time to go play outside.

Photo credit: Cryptobiotic Soil from Arches National Park, by Daniel Mayer via Wikimedia Commons. For more on this particular dirt, see Cryptobiotic Soils: Holding the Place in Place, by Jayne Belnap of the USGS. Cryptobiotic derives from the Greek for "hidden life"--and these soils are full of it. For more interesting information on bacteria, see this week's post in The Owls' Parliament.


jabblog said...

You'd love our house then - it's full of stuff tracked in by the dogs (mostly) to the extent that the washing machine, in which dusters and dishcloths are regularly thrown, sometimes stops pumping out because bits of the forest are hindering it. Enjoy your long weekend :-)

jabblog said...

Dear Candace, thank you so much for your compassionate comment about Buddy. We always hope that our wonderful companions will die peacefully at home. Sadly, it happens rarely.
I hope that Koko will be granted a peaceful passing. It's awful watching and wondering how long they have and should we intervene. While there's interaction and positive response without pain or distress we can only think that our companions are happy to remain with us.
I've already told my children to shoot me if I get beyond . . . though of course, they may not. Why is that?
Keeping you and Koko in my thoughts . . .