Are You Disrupting Your Home’s Valuable Microbiome?

By Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza

Most of us are familiar about the microbiomes in our own bodies—that is, the trillions of bacteria, viruses, and fungi that inhabit pretty much every part of our bodies—whose native contents can provide the key to maintaining good health. This is why we’re cautioned against using too much hand sanitizer, told to eat Greek yogurt, and prescribed probiotics along with antibiotics. The bacteria, viruses, and fungi native to your body are a good thing, they’re responsible for a delicate balance that keeps you healthy.

Science is now considering another type of microbiome, the microbiomes in our homes, or those bacteria, viruses, and fungi that contribute to the healthful balance in our physical spaces and directly contribute to our bodies’ microbiomes.

Dr. Jack Gilbert—microbiologist, director of the Microbiome Center at the University of Chicago, and author of the book Dirt Is Good—has devoted a considerable amount work to understanding our bodies’ microbiology. In a TEDx talk, Gilbert discusses the effects altering one’s microbiome on mental health, one’s immune system, and even behavior.

Dr. Gilbert maintains that a “germ-free” mentality is preventing many of us—and especially our children—from developing balanced microbiomes and strong immune systems. In response to this germ-free movement popularized my advertisers promising that their products kill 99.9% of germs, consumers are beginning to wonder if getting rid of all those germs was really a good idea after all.

And consumer brands are responding too. Mat Franken—founder and CEO of Aunt Fannie’s, a food-based home cleaning and pest control brand that uses non-disruptive, microbiomic ingredients, like vinegars and oils, in its products—not surprisingly, is a proponent of the microbiomic movement that removes synthetics and pesticides from the products we use in our homes everyday.

“Most cleaners use man-made chemicals formulated in a lab,” says Franken “These are not ingredients our bodies understand, which disrupts our natural environment. Even ‘natural’ products take plant molecules, break them, add what they want, and subtract what they want, making an ingredient unknown to the human body.”

Franken also points out a 2018 study that indicates household goods and cleaning supplies are a significant source of air pollution. The study began in 2010 with a team of scientists looking at air quality in famously smoggy Los Angeles. It was here that they measured ethanol levels very high if the only source were vehicles. “That tipped us off to look at where are other sources of ethanol and what could they be in, and it turns out that ethanol is pretty common in personal care products and cleaning products,” atmospheric scientist at NOAA and the study’s lead author Brian MacDonald told NPR earlier this year.

Another study also published this year suggests that regular use of house cleaning products can be as damaging as smoking a pack a day

How can you disrupt your microbiome? Why is this bad?

Disrupting your microbiome by removing the good bacteria can have detrimental effects on our immune systems, our mental health, and even our behavior.

In the same TEDx talk, Gilbert notes the effects of removing good bacteria from a body’s microbiome. In an experiment at the University of Chicago, Gilbert removed “good bacteria” from a mouse and put it in a box. In nature, the mouse would stay in the box in order to survive. But the mouse with the altered microbiome, actually ran out of the box, which, in nature would make it vulnerable to predators. It’s changes like these that can alter our behavior, our health, and our resistance to autoimmune illnesses.

It was Mat Franken’s own experience with illness that led him to create Aunt Fannie’s. His happy, healthy toddler developed severe eczema, allergies, and reflux, and despite help from doctors and allergists, didn’t see the recovery Franken hoped for. It was only when he stopped pursuing a germ-free environment and ditched the cleaning chemicals that his son’s health improved.

“Like antibiotics that can decimate our body’s beneficial bacteria, leaving our system’s vulnerable to digestive trouble, bombing our house with disinfectants and harsh chemicals (even most “eco-friendly” cleaners can go too far) disrupts the natural balance of bacteria in our indoor spaces and can lead to serious issues like asthma, allergies, and skin conditions like eczema.”

How to maintain a balanced microbiome

A 2015 Swedish study revealed that children who are exposed at an early age to pets and farm animals are 13% less likely to develop asthma, and another study from the same year indicated that children who are raised on dairy farms are significantly less likely to develop the same condition. Though the relationship between exposure and risk for allergies and asthma is not yet fully understood, there is some empirical evidence to suggest that exposure to pets and animals may reduce your child’s risk of developing these autoimmune illnesses and can even strengthen our immune systems, exposure to dogs in particular can greatly contribute to the diversity of our homes’ microbiomes.

Dr. Gilbert notes in an interview with mindbodygreen that houseplants are another source of microbial exposure that can help you develop a strong immune system, so don’t be afraid to get dirty or adopt a horticultural practice.

Making sure your home is host to beneficial bacteria can also mean changing the way we clean. “Vinegar is an old fashioned powerhouse cleaner,” says Franken. “Typical household white vinegar (a primary ingredient [Aunt Fannie’s] our cleaning line) doubles as a food, so it’s safe for your bodies, yet cuts through grease like a pro. Consider using a baking soda scrub as well. It will tackle those grimy spots that need a little extra grit.” Apart from balancing your home’s microbiome, consider that whatever you use to clean your countertops, stove, oven, kitchen cabinets—really, anything in your kitchen—can eventually come into contact with the foods you eat, so cleaning with food-based products is a great place to start.

“Aside from, of course, choosing healthier, non-toxic products in our homes,” says Franken, “there are some other great ways to make our biomes much healthier.” Try opening windows, drying clothes outside on a line, and foregoing antibacterial soaps. Eat a balanced diet, play outside, and get a dog (you’re welcome).

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