The Case of the Missing Microbes | Seventh Generation
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The Case of the Missing Microbes

6 comments
Author: the Inkslinger

We tend to think that illness is caused by something. Chemicals trigger cancer. Viruses create colds. Poor diets give us heart disease. But what if much of what ails us in the 21st century isn't caused by a presence but an absence. That's the idea behind a recent book that takes wellness in a whole new direction.

An Epidemic of Absence, by Moises Valasquez-Manoff, looks at the theory known as the Hygiene Hypothesis. I've discussed this idea before, and it's not without its controversies. Trying to convince people that arch nemeses like bacteria, viruses, fungi, and worms keep us healthy is a tough sell. But I suspect that if everyone read this book, it'd get a whole lot easier.

Velasquez-Manoff weaves hundreds of threads together to make a convincing argument that while medical advances like vaccines and antibiotics have erased much human suffering, they've also erased the vast communities of microbes and other organisms that once inhabited our gut, our skin, and nearly every place in between. And that means trouble because these may not have been enemies but ancient evolutionary friends whose presence keeps our immune systems primed and allergies, asthma, inflammation, bowel disease, cancer and maybe even things like autism and multiple sclerosis away.

It's a fascinating if heretical notion. Is our hyperbolic obsession with cleanliness as evidenced by the insatiable demand for antibiotics and antibacterial products, really killing us? The wealth of evidence Valasquez-Manoff collects here strongly suggests that it is.

It starts with this: Healthy people carry 100 trillion bacteria on and inside themselves. For every one human cell in your body, there are 10 bacteria cells. We are and have always been walking Petri dishes. But since the mid-1800s, better sanitary and medical arts have increasingly sterilized life and removed from our tissues not only the 150 or so bacteria that can threaten our health but thousands of other species as well.

At the same time, cases of immune disorders, allergies, inflammatory diseases and other conditions have mysteriously skyrocketed. It's more than a little odd and here's something odder: The cleaner and more modern the country, the higher the rates of these illnesses. The "dirtiest" among us, those who live in close proximity to soil, animals, and each other, like farmers and tribal peoples, suffer much less if at all from such things.

Clearly something's going on, and this book and all the scientists whose work has contributed to it appear to have found it, because when you add up everything we know, as Velasquez-Manoff does, you end up with a compelling case that the biggest victims in humanity's ongoing war against pathogens are ourselves.

This makes this a book for every nightstand, and the good news is that it's delightfully readable. There's a bit of a detective story quality to it as Valasquez-Manoff breezily explores an attention-getting series of fascinating who-done-its. More importantly, the ideas here are likely the first wave of a coming medical revolution. What you'll learn may help someone you know.

In the end, the message is simple: we ourselves are ecosystems, and just as in nature, these environments within rely on a delicate balance we've unknowingly thrown off. It's time to respect the worlds inside us and the creatures that inhabit them. As we've learned, to cut one strand in the web of life is to cut many. This book shows us those strands exist inside our own bodies as well and tells us it's time to reconnect them.

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Comments

ruthla picture
ruthla
01/24/13
This is why I was so perplexed when 7th Generation came out with antibacterial wipes, cleaners, etc. I remember there being some kind of promotion where I could win these products, and my thinking at the time was "why would I want that in my home?" I clean my mirrors and bathroom surfaces with a vinegar-based spray cleaner. I buy the 7th gen dishwashing liquid, and use it both for my dishes and as a base for my "all purpose cleaner" I use on the kitchen counters and stovetop- it's just a spray bottle with water and a few drops of dishwashing liquid. I do keep some hydrogen peroxide on hand for sanitizing the area around the sink, but that breaks down to simply water and oxygen. And I only do that a few times a week, not every day- certainly not every time I wipe up a spill!
rvanzile3@comcast.net picture
rvanzile3@comcast.net
12/21/12
I would disagree with this theory as I grew up having my cloths dried outside when it was nice out and had dogs as pets from birth until teens; and now in my mid-20's have allergies to dogs, cats and a few other things.
HeatherJoy picture
HeatherJoy
12/16/12
My child spent their early years playing in our composted garden, eating dropped food etc. We dealt with tummy upsets with grated apple. She has only been ill three times in 15 years. Go figure.
gracefully_p picture
gracefully_p
11/30/12
I think this is absolutely plausible - I have long had a theory that use of clothes dryers rather than drying clothes by hanging them on a clothesline is behind the HUGE increase in allergies - we are no longer exposed to pollen & other allergens for the earliest moments of our lives - & even during pregnancy, while the baby is in the womb. Therefore, we have no opportunity to build up the appropriate tolerance for them. In addition, we are creating "super bugs" by our over-use & obsession with "clean" - ie germicidal soap, hand sanitizer, anti-biotics, etc. Also, it is KNOWN that "good" bacteria in our guts is key for good digestion and health. That is why we cannot digest our foods & have an epidemic of heartburn - hence, the huge # of "purple pill" addicts.
areed1957 picture
areed1957
11/30/12
Finally! I have made the people around me nuts for years because I refuse to use antibacterial anything. I also eat a vegan diet because of the antibiotics used in livestock. I am so happy someone wrote a book on the subject, I can't wait to read it.
llcherington picture
llcherington
11/29/12
sounds awesome...people need to read this and ditch the bleach!!!!!