Chances are, your mother taught you to wash your hands (with soap and water!) before eating (and after visiting the loo).
Chances are, you still do (well, most of the time anyway).
But where does this practise come from?
We know from the Good Book that the Jews had hand-washing rituals for as long as anyone can remember – at least 2,500 years, possibly even double that. This is maybe why mothers also like to say, “Cleanliness is next to godliness.” It’s almost in the Bible. The Jews are not the only culture with a long tradition of handwashing. Most major religions have some form of ritual (hand) washing embedded somewhere.
The widespread acceptance of hand-washing before eating (and with soap) is actually very recent, however. It involves a remarkable doctor who dared to challenge his colleagues. Guess who won?
Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian with a German background, lived in the first half of the nineteenth century. By that time, doctors had largely taken over the noble art of delivering babies from often poorly educated midwives. And babies were mostly delivered in hospitals, no longer in private homes.
Doctors are busy people, so the noble art of delivering babies got shoved into the middle of other hospital duties (like doing autopsies). Semmelweis published a book that gently pointed out how the mothers of babies delivered by doctors in hospitals had a three-fold higher risk of dying, than those attended to by the “uneducated” midwives.
His experiments had shown that washing hands with an antiseptic solution before practising the noble art of delivering babies resulted in a maternal death rate of less than 1% (down from a much as 33% amongst doctors in hospitals).
Here’s some good advice from a doc: NEVER tell a doctor that a humble, “undeducated” midwife has a better outcome than a highly-trained, super-intelligent doctor. You might as well suggest that chimney-sweeps design better buildings than architects. Even worse, NEVER tell doctors they are the cause of death and disease. Death and disease are caused by patients, not doctors. We all know that, don’t we?
So, the medical establishment turned on Semmelweis, demanding proof for his suggestion that delivering babies with clean hands led to lower maternal death rates. He could offer none (Pasteur only proposed his germ theory a few years before Semmelweis died).
Semmelweis was edged out of his obstetric work in Vienna and blocked from teaching obstetrics to students. Returning to his native Budapest was not much better. Hounded by constant rejection and the screams of dying mothers, Semmelweis was eventually committed to an insane asylum, where he died 14 days later of wounds sustained when guards beat him.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, was the end of Semmelweis. Or so the medical fraternity thought. Except… maternal death rates in Budapest jumped as soon as Semmelweis left the building. Doctors refused to report on this, so there was no public revolt. It took Pasteur and Lister (and about 20 years) to convince doctors that Semmelweis had been right all along.
Once doctors cottoned on, antiseptic hand-washing was enforced – not just for doctors delivering babies, but also (especially and importantly) for those disease-laden patients.
And so your grandmother was taught to wash her hands with soap and water before eating and after visiting the loo. And she taught her daughter. And your mother taught you. We are only the third generation of soap-washing people in the history of the world. No, it’s not in the Good Book.
But that is not what Semmelweis taught. He focused on obstetricians only. Trust his colleagues to take it to another extreme.
Imagine being reviled in life and misinterpreted in death. Spare a thought for poor Semmelweis.
Where is this leading to?
While spending a few free minutes with my semi-free chickens, I noticed them eating soil – lots of it. I also noticed how my dogs religiously ate chicken droppings whenever they could. Both chickens and dogs seemed to benefit from this yucky diet. This is not accidental animal behaviour, it is deliberate and daily.
Finally, the penny dropped. It’s all about minerals and germ transfer (we need germs to absorb minerals). Not the minerals you can measure easily (like calcium), or the ones that are present in trace amounts (like copper) but the ones that are present in even lesser amounts (parts per billion). We can hardly measure them (like microbes were hardly measurable before Pasteur came along), so we ignore them.
Who needs germs?
We, as it turns out.
In an excellent recent article (link below), researcher Justin Sonnenburg describes how people in the West managed to kill vast amounts of their gut flora over the past two generations. He bemoans the loss of entire microbe civilisations, many of which are possibly lost forever.
But reports of the death of the microbiome may have been wildly exaggerated. Looking at my chickens, I have some hope.
Looking at the commercial meat-production chain, animals lose almost all regular contact with the soil and all cross-species contact with poo. There, I said it: POO. Get used to that word. Furthermore, caged animals are fed on grains that contain almost no fibre. This means their gut microbiome adjusts to fermentation of starches, instead of the digestion of cellulose (fibre).
Breaking fibre down in the gut turns out to be important for a healthy immune system and a happy life in general.
We’re not even talking about the effects of antibiotics on the gut microbiome of caged animals.
With only accidental soil intake, the meat (espeically organ meat) from caged animals is also deficient in critical trace minerals. It looks like meat, it almost tastes like meat, but it’s not quite what it could (or should) have been.
So, what does this mean to you?
I now understand that the human microbiomes (gut and skin) need regular contact (“contamination”) with the microbiomes of healthy herbivores (cows, sheep, goats, poultry). You may not want to eat chicken poo (although you may know a few people you’d like to feed it to). But you don’t need to. Using cow, horse and chicken manure on your own veggie patch means that a few microbes will get into your food chain (especially if you don’t wash those spinach leaves in soapy water).
NOT washing your hands with soap and water before eating will help some microbes get into your gut, too. Water alone is fine, if you insist on washing.
Note: You will see the question mark in the title of this post. If I, as doctor, were to challenge, again, the new medical status quo, I’d be shuffled out of my medical degree and into an asylum faster than laxative passing through a skeleton.
What about parasites? This requires a much longer answer, but here’s the short answer: The infections you need to worry about are almost never transmitted by herbivore poo. The ones you need to worry about that are possibly transmitted by poo are destroyed by UV light (read: sunlight) and/or removed by simply washing with water (no soap needed). So, using healthy herbivore manure on a sunlit veggie patch is not going to harm anyone.
Whose microbiome is it anyway?
I’m not going against your mother’s advice. I’m just modifying it a bit for the sake of your health. It’s time to start loving THE microbiome back into our midst. It’s not YOURS. It’s not MINE. It is shared across generations, within generations, between species. It’s not glamorous or even visible (except when produced in large, stinky numbers). But it is far more important to the survival of humanity than doctors are willing to admit.
Improtant: This article does not constitute medical advice. I’m not promising any cures if you implement my observations. I’m just saying…
To your health!
Doc Frank (aka “The Dirty Doctor”)
NOVEMBER 12, 2015
Burgers and fries have nearly killed our ancestral microbiome.