Good Germs, Bad Germs

I ran across a statement in a study recently that discussed the ways in which farm kids were healthier than city kids. Lower infection rates, and lower allergy/sensitivity rates. I hope nobody takes offense at the labeling of “farm kids” and “city kids”. I offer no definitions, so you are free to fit in whichever category you like!

Well, there’s usually two big differences between farm and city kids.

1. They more often eat food produced at home. That is, food that is NOT sterilized to death, and coated in preservatives, detergents, and artificial colors and flavors, with the good stuff stripped out and a handful of enrichments thrown in.

2. They are usually exposed to WAY more natural germs, allergens, and things like saliva, manure, blood, raw milk, etc.

So how can it be, if they are AROUND more stuff, and that stuff is (according to the USDA), not as clean, how can they be healthier?

For one, the absence of even a portion of the chemicals that load your food is a health boon to anyone. That alone will strengthen your immune system and reduce your allergies. Commercial organic foods are still laden with a host of contaminants, but they are usually a fair bit better than non-organics, so this may be a way for you to test and see if this makes a difference for you.

But beyond that, it is that very EXPOSURE to germs that MAKES farm kids healthy.

Not all germs are bad. In fact, about half the germs out there are actually GOOD for you. Another 40% or so are neutral – they don’t hurt you or help you. The other 10% are the ones that give germs a bad rap.

The good news about those bad ones is, that most of the time, even THEY are harmless – because you are usually not exposed to a lot, and you normally have enough good bacteria to reduce the effect before your immune system even has to handle it, and what is left is easily dispatched.

So from that paragraph, maybe you start to understand that even bad germs really aren’t that much of a threat most of the time. And there are more factors than just your immune system at work. And one of those factors is….



That’s right. Good germs.

Normally, the world has a pretty good complement of good and bad germs. And the good germs do a lot to keep the bad germs in check. They are a great ally. This is why traditional fermented or aged foods are able to be safely consumed, even though they’ve not been refrigerated. Traditional fermented and aged foods include:

  • Sauer Kraut
  • Pickles (salt brined pickles, not the vinegar kind)
  • Sourdough Bread
  • Yogurt
  • Buttermilk
  • Cheeses

And all kinds of other ones that most people don’t know about anymore, but which used to be traditional foods in ethnic homes across the world.

If you keep conditions right, the good germs will grow, and the bad ones won’t. If you leave it in the wrong conditions, the bad ones will grow and things will get nasty. So certainly, there are rules about keeping those bad ones from taking over.

Recently I made cheese. I left fresh, unpasteurized goat milk out on the counter for about three days, until it was nicely curdled and separated, and smelled about like cottage cheese (at this point, it was safe to drink – it is just buttermilk – that is how buttermilk is traditionally made). Then I dumped it into a pot, heated it up to a certain point (which, incidentally, killed all the good germs in it). I added some lemon juice, stirred it until it curded up, and then strained it. The lemon juice went out in the whey, leaving me with cheese that tastes a lot like very expensive chevre.

When I recounted this on FaceBook, someone expressed surprise. “Won’t leaving the milk out make it get sour?” Yes, it does. But…. If you leave out raw milk, you get buttermilk because of the natural bacteria – those natural bacteria grow faster than the opportunistic bacteria floating around in the air. If you leave out pasteurized milk, you get nasty sour milk, because all it has are those opportunistic bacteria. Raw milk naturally contains a lot of GOOD bacteria, so even if it is left out, it is still very healthy because it just means you get more good bacteria in it. Beyond a certain point it will get nasty – when the good bacteria use up all the available food for themselves, the bad bacteria will move in and feed on the good bacteria and what is left.

Outside the body, germs do some pretty cool things, besides just making interesting patterns on things you leave too long in the fridge (please don’t eat those things, they are NOT the good kind of germs). But INSIDE the body, they do even cooler things.

Inside your body, there are all kinds of germs that help your body function better. Most of them live in your intestines, and aid in the process of digestion, but they also function there as the first line defense against foodborne illness. That’s important, because a lot of the things that hurt bacteria OUTSIDE the body are also things that hurt it INSIDE.

Preservatives, chlorine, detergents, pesticides, herbicides, and all those things that are designed to kill life outside your body can also kill it inside – first the intestinal bacteria, then the cells that line your intestinal walls.

If you have a healthy colony of bacteria in there, it serves to protect your body a little against occasional exposures to such contaminants. On regular exposure though, not only are the friendly bacteria killed off, your intestines sustain damage as well.

Those bacteria do a lot of things. They help keep your intestines healthy and your immune system healthy. Good bacteria is responsible for a portion of the digestive process – it helps to break down food into the nutrients that are absorbed by the intestines. If you become deficient in intestinal bacteria, you also become nutritionally deficient.

Good bacteria also help maintain a balance in the fungus in your body. You have various yeast strains (candida is common) in your body. They are always there. Too little bacteria means they get out of control, and you’ll get painful fungal infections on your hands, armpits, legs, etc. It can create a weepy, swollen red and painful rash, or it can cause dry cracking on the ends of fingers and toes. Fungal infections usually show an outward set of symptoms, and a few cartons of yogurt or a bottle of kefir can often clear them right up – eat the yogurt, it works just fine from the inside out.

So… what about those neutral bacteria, and even the bad ones?

Regular exposure to them, in small amounts, helps to strengthen the immune system. You are expose to salmonella, e coli, shigella, and other bacteria on a daily basis. Farm kids are exposed to even more of them. Most strains are not even harmful, but even when they are, it is in such low concentrations that it doesn’t make you sick. What it does do, is give your body practice in recognizing and destroying that kind of invader.

So why do people get sick with those illnesses? There are several reasons:

1. Usually it is from a fairly high exposure. Modern food handling means that if food is contaminated, a LOT of it is contaminated in a large facility, and then it will spend a significant amount of time in transit – time enough for it to incubate and grow.

2. Often, it is a superbug. More aggressive, and nastier than normal. Those bugs were created in mass farming and processing facilities where chlorine and other disinfectants are used on a daily basis (so pathogens become immune), and where the bugs come from animals that have been treated regularly with antibiotics so the disease is also antibiotic resistant.

3. If you are eating foods with preservatives and drinking chlorinated water on a regular basis, your own intestinal bacteria may be depleted, giving you no front line defense.

4. If your immune system has not been exposed to small amounts of normal germs on a regular basis, you won’t have much strength with which to fight a heavy exposure.

5. Antibiotics from either a prescription or passed to you through meats or dairy foods, can upset the bacterial balance in your intestines.

Now, I’m not at all suggesting that we never wash our hands. But I am suggesting that most of the time, water is all we need. Food should be washed in water, not detergents – those detergents are harmful to you in more ways than one. And homes should be kept clean, but do not need to be kept sterilized – that ends up backfiring on the entire household. The use of anti-bacterial soaps should be avoided except when you have a need to sterilize your hands, for instance, when you need to bandage up a child, or if you’ve just helped a goat give birth (sorry, I couldn’t resist…).

Certainly there are times when disinfectants are required. After handling things that are specifically high risk, absolutely. But for day to day living, most of the time we aren’t doing that. Peeling a potato is not a high risk behavior. Handling meat that has spent a few too many days in the fridge, is because it has become a pool of concentrated harmful bacteria. Use some judgment and clean up with water, unless you feel there is a reason to believe there is a high concentration of germs all in one place – like washing the dishes.

There’s no such thing as perfectly sterile anyway, and if you are bent on killing every germ in your path, you are going to kill more good ones than bad ones, and it will come back to bite you.

So get some good germs into your life. Not only will it help you, but it will make those unplanned encounters with the bad ones much less risky!

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