Boost your immune system by sharing germs?

By: Dr. Victor Marchione | General Health | Thursday, September 25, 2014 - 05:03 AM

BACTERIA, IMMUNEYou know public toilets are usually coated in bacteria. Not only that, but every time you step outside of your home you are at risk of being exposed to all kinds of bacteria.

At least when you are within your own home you are safe from bacteria and getting sick, right? Well, not really.

As it turns out, your home may offer you a comfortable chair and room to relax, but it isn’t a safe haven from bacteria. In fact, it is teeming with your own personal brand of the bacteria, following you around like a microbial fingerprint.

In a new study, which is part of the Home Microbiome Project and published in the journal Science, researchers from the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois looked at the bacteria from seven families, their pets and their dwellings. Over six weeks, they swabbed hands, feet, noses and skin, as well as countertops, doorknobs and other commonly used surfaces.

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Individual bacteria we take with us

The findings might surprise you! Researchers found our bodies release bacteria when we shed our skin, yawn and even when we open the refrigerator door. In fact, this germ-sharing activity happens fairly quickly.

When three study participants moved to a new house, it took less than a day for bacteria to grow in their new place. And it didn’t matter if it was a house or hotel room, each area was quickly coated with each person’s own individual type of bacteria.

“People get very fidgety and itchy about hotel rooms,” says study author Jack Gilbert, a microbiologist at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois. “But realistically, my hotel room right now looks like my microbiome. I’ve wiped out any of the previous occupants’ microflora in here – it’s 99.9 percent me.”

Researchers pointed out that we don’t just share bacteria with our homes, but also with those we live with. In the study, it was couples and their young children who shared the most bacteria with each other. You can thank regular physical contact for that.

When it comes to physical biology, you and your spouse (or your cat) are more similar than you realize.

When analyzing the study samples, researchers were able to forecast which family the floor germs belonged to. That’s because the microbial signature of each family was so unique. A microbial signature works much like a fingerprint, making it easier to identify a person.

So what does that mean when it comes to the bacteria that can cause disease? Well, researchers also looked at an antibiotic-resistant human pathogen that made its home on top of a kitchen countertop and on the hands of participants. But no family member ever became ill because of it.

Our immune systems, according to researchers, are able to ward off most bad bacteria most of the time. It’s only when our microflora, which is the bacteria that’s present in the large intestine, is compromised that the bad bacteria attacks us, making us sick.

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How to protect yourself from bad bacteria

So the best way to strengthen your defenses against bacteria is simply exposing your immune system to a mix of microbes. They’re found on toothbrushes, soap dispensers, bath towels, pillows and duvets. But owning a pet may be the best way to do this. Dogs and cats, especially, bring plant and soil bacteria from the outside world right into the home.

You also want to keep your gut happy with good bacteria to keep your immune system strong. Your gut is home to 70 to 80 percent of our immune cells. Probiotics, the good bacteria found in fermented foods like yogurt, help to bolster the good bacteria in the gut.

You can also try prebiotics, which contain nondigestible carbohydrates, like those in whole grains, onions, garlic, leeks, artichokes, asparagus and chicory root. Studies have shown that eating prebiotics on a regular basis decreases irritable bowel syndrome and fat storage. I’ve found they can also help reduce allergic reactions like skin rashes.

The study results are merely the beginning of scientists’ understanding of how we engage with our environment. As Gilbert puts it, “There’s a continuous sequence of events between you and your world. It’s not like a brick wall that ends abruptly at your skin. So we have to fully appreciate this in our messy, day-to-day lives.”

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