The Hygiene Hypothesis

In these days when we are considering our kids back in school, it’s worth balancing our ideas of clean versus dirty, and what clean actually means. Does it mean a sterile, germ-free environment?

And if we were to live in a germ-free environment, what would happen when we came across a relatively simple germ? We might have no immunity to it, and a relatively harmless virus or bacterium could take us out, or require an enormous fight in order for us to overcome it.

Germy Kids

So, that spoonful of dirt we are all supposed to get during childhood is for the purpose of educating and strengthening our immune systems. Parents know that when we send our kids to school they immediately seem to get sick and bring all of their germs home to the family, so we can all sniffle together.

Photo: Sara Pflugg with Burst

Although very annoying for all, it is a sign that the family’s immune system is being challenged with simple colds and other reasonably innocuous germs. Why do we suddenly all get sick? Usually, it’s because we have brought unfamiliar germs into our circle. We actually get used to the viral and bacterial content of our own environment. This is part of the reason so many people fall sick after going on vacation.

These periodic illnesses are what keep our immune systems tuned up, creating B and T cells to recognize and keep up with the new germs in the neighbourhood. There is a balance between never being sick and being sick too often. If every cold of a season seems to take us down, there are indications that the immune system may be weak. If the immune system becomes a couch potato with a lack of exercise (“never sick a day in his life”), it may not be able to attack an invader who tries to break in the door.

Cleaning and Disinfection

We must protect against known and nasty organisms that might exist in our food or water without trying to sterilize our whole environment. We need to balance ideas of disinfecting kitchen surfaces (from, for example, possible salmonella contamination) with the notion that clean is clean enough. Constant disinfecting of our living spaces may be detrimental to our health, especially to our children’s health.

A study in 1985 found that as infectious diseases came down steadily in the Western world, there was a corresponding rise in immune problems, whereas the opposite was true in developing countries – they had a high rate of infectious diseases and a very low rate of allergic, immune and auto-immune diseases, such as inflammatory bowel disease and diabetes.

Photo: Fernanda Publio with Burst
Twig yes, metal pole, no.

How does this work? Part of the idea is that our good bugs become limited when we try to kill off all of the bad bugs in our environment, so that our friendly bugs can no longer protect us. They are victims of friendly fire. This happens with antibiotic use, some of which is very necessary. It also happens with overly cleaned environments, not to mention the toxicity of the cleaning agents themselves.

In 1989, David Strachan, epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, observed that hay fever was less common among children with older siblings. He concluded that children growing up in larger families will be more exposed to microbes in early childhood, from contact with older siblings. Prenatal exposure of the mother to their unhygienic little darlings will also increase exposure of healthy dirt to the fetus. Strachan proposed that this exposure protects children from developing immune and allergic problems later in life.

All of those snotty noses turn out to be quite protective.

What About COVID?

Kids get COVID less and seem to transmit it less, according to MacMaster Dr. Jeffery Pernica, Head of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Disease. Getting them to understand the importance of hand washing, and of not coming to school when they’re sick is part of their overall training. Getting kids to wash their hands with repetition and fun will help much more than shaming, fear tactics or punishment.

If they do come down with it, the recovery rate, according to WebMD is 97% – 99.75%. Right now we are hyper aware of protecting our aged population and those whose immune systems are in some way compromised. Of this massive recovery percentile, an equal rate of recoveries happen at home, without medication, except for mommy care. And couldn’t we all use just a little more of that…

Wisely, Dr. Pernica also suggests the ability of parents to leave work at a moment’s notice in order to look after sick children. Too often parents, mothers especially, have to defend themselves at their work places when children are sick. They face the sighs, head shakes or outright aggressive comments about their commitment to the company, or snide remarks about excuses to go home.

It is difficult in these days to balance our need to protect against seasonal flu and COVID-19, while trying not to eliminate our stock of good bugs – our own internal flora, good gut bacteria or the friendly bugs that live on our skin. These are all protective and, in some cases, symbiotic. They live with us and there is mutual benefit to having them as friendly tenants.

Our gut flora is, in some quarters, considered its own organ, not just a collection of bacteria. These bugs are so important to us in their numbers and activities that without them we would cease to exist. It is widely said that we are mostly water. In truth, we are mostly bugs (bacteria, viruses and beneficial parasites). While there may be an “ick” factor with this, we have to make friends with the idea and protect them so that they can protect us.

The Dangers of Hand Washing

“Wash Your Hands!” is the battle cry of the current time. This is generally good advice. When we’re out and about, we are smeared and sprayed with all manner of “sanitizer” for the privilege of entering an establishment. Some of this is just alcohol, which is harsh enough on the skin, while other solutions are said to smell of rotting vegetation (or worse). Just what is inside this stuff?

hand sanitizing is second best
Photo: Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

While many hand sanitizers contain alcohol (60% is the minimum to be effective), the ingredients in others make a toxic chemical soup, especially if they proclaim loudly that they are alcohol free. One of these ingredients could be triclosan. This has been the main ingredient in anti-bacterial soaps until recently. Indications are that the rules around this particular chemical are as slippery as the soap itself. So, although it is officially banned, it’s still around.

In 2017, the FDA declared that triclosan was not generally recognized as safe or effective in antiseptic products made for use in health care settings. It was also banned for use in over the counter products.

In Canada, triclosan was added in June 2018 to Schedule 1 of the Environmental Protection Act on recommendation of both the Ministers of Environment and of Health. Schedule 1 is the toxic substances list.

What is Triclosan?

The order statement reads: “Triclosan is a synthetic organic chemical used as an antibacterial agent and preservative in a range of products used by consumers to stop the growth of bacteria, fungi, and mildew, and to prevent odours (e.g. skin cleansers, moisturizers, deodorants, cleaning products and toothpastes). Triclosan was used in pest control products, but such a use is no longer registered in Canada.”1

The addition of triclosan is restricted to a concentration of 0.03% in mouthwashes and 0.3% in other cosmetic products, such as anti-bacterial soaps. These are in line with other international jurisdictions, such as the EU and Australia. At these levels triclosan is thought to be safe, but it did hit the Dirty Dozen list for the David Suzuki Foundation.

Let’s take a closer look at this pesticide/preservative/antibacterial agent. One of the problems with triclosan is that it does not degrade, so it persists both in the body and the environment. It is also used in so many products that it will easily accumulate in the body, even though the concentrations in each product are at an “acceptable” level.

More worrying still is the possibility that it is adding to global anti-bacterial resistance, both in our bodies and in nature, leading to antibiotic resistance. Diseases we’ve gloated about eliminating are now re-emerging in brand-spanking new antibiotic-resistant forms.

What’s so Bad About Triclosan?

First, it has been deemed very toxic to aquatic species, so we’re killing life in our water ways. This includes plants, beneficial bugs and swimmers of all sorts. It is being detected in our fresh waters and streams, in the fish we eat and the vegetables that are irrigated. Even when the water has been treated before spraying on fields, the triclosan persists.

Triclosan is also a suspected endocrine disruptor, meaning that it interferes with hormone function in humans. Our hormones serve to regulate many body functions, so think way beyond estrogen or testosterone. Endocrine disruptors are linked with developmental and reproductive disorders (birth defects), brain and nerve disorders, and cancerous tumours. (There is a short list here of other endocrine disruptors.)

But the kicker, during these uncertain pandemic times, is that it is harmful to the immune system. Harmful to the immune system. Well, that’s just great.

Food or Drug?

Used in cosmetics (soap, shampoo, moisturizers, etc), it falls under the Food and Drug administration, so is subject to cosmetic regulation (for safety). Within this definition, substances can be added to the Cosmetic Ingredient Hotlist. This is a list of ingredients that are prohibited for use in cosmetic products because they are so toxic.

But if triclosan is added to something like a hand sanitizer, the product is usually making a therapeutic claim (e.g. germ killing). It is then classified as a “drug”, and is therefore exempt from such restrictions. So, any product that is allowed to make a therapeutic or functional claim about your health can potentially contain ingredients more dangerous than would be allowed in a body wash or first aid preparation.

This is fine, we imagine, if it is in the hands of a knowledgeable doctor telling us how to use it. But when those guys at the restaurant or bookshop are spraying it on me, often before I can refuse my consent to be so sprayed, it’s a little different.

What to do?

hand washing is best
Photo: Matthew Henry on Burst

First, check all of your products for triclosan, including toothpaste, mouthwash, any anti-bacterial product – especially hand soap, but also deodorants and antiperspirants, hand lotions and cosmetics, plastic kitchen ware or office products, and any fabric boasting of anti-bacterial properties (shoe inserts, etc). Though officially banned, it is still sneaking into products that are not deemed “cosmetic”.

Next, stop using anti-bacterial soap and dish washing liquid. Please. These are perhaps the two things we would buy most consciously, thinking we are doing good for our health and our family. But adding endocrine disruptors to our daily cleaning routine is not worth the risk of harming our immune system.

Wash with plain soap and water, and do your dishes in a detergent or natural product. Chemical residues are entering your body by mouth and through the skin. Normal soap and detergent are enough to disrupt the cell surface of a virus, so that it dies during the cleaning process. Extra killing power is not required.

Once you’ve come home, wash your hands and then stop sanitizing. It’s enough to wash the world off when you enter. Once you’ve cleaned your home, the virus will not sneak in through the windows. Just have everyone wash their hands as soon as they get home. Guests these days will likely welcome the opportunity to wash their hands when they come to you.

I’ve thrown out my hand towels and have adopted the practice of the “single use towel”, so I have a bazillion washcloths for people to dry their hands on, using each only once. I’ve done this for 15 years in my massage practice, so I thought I would extend it to my daily life, especially for my guests’ peace of mind. (For a family, you could have one per person per day or some such…)

Finally, watch for germ-killing, plaque-removing toothpastes, and check the ingredients on these. It’s enough to brush with something that doesn’t make wild claims about killing everything in sight. There are enzymes in the mouth that not only begin the digestive process but act as part of our immune system. Enzymes resemble simple bacterial shapes so too much killing can take out these guys too.

hand made soaps
Photo: Heather Ford for Unsplash

There are marvelous artisan soaps available these days, made by people who devote themselves to natural ingredients, making art from the humdrum needs of life.

In Ontario, Canada, you could try the following:

The Virus and the Body’s Superpowers

We have been looking at the immune system in two of its most basic forms, the innate system and the adaptive system. Now I want to turn our attention to the virus itself (not any particular one, though it is the SARS-CoV-2 that has us all spooked at the moment), to discover the nature of the beast, its powers and its weaknesses.

There are essentially two ways to pick up this little beastie – through a droplet containing it, or by making contact with a surface on which it is lounging.

The Virus

By now we are all familiar with this dust monster representation of the COVID virus. It travels in droplets of mucus and derives a small amount of nutrition from the gooey, slimy consistency of that environment. It is sprayed outward from a carrier in coughs and sneezes.

It does not travel freely in the air or fall on us in rain droplets. Even if this were possible, it has a lifespan of 72 hours without having a host (human body) to feed it and allow it to replicate. Even if it could float in the air or water, it would have to be PDQ in order to reach us before it cacked through starvation. (But it doesn’t, so put that thought away.)

Now for surface contact. “It can remain on a surface for up to 72 hours”, we are told in the BBC voice of dire warning. Good. This also means that it can only survive for a maximum of 72 hours or 3 days. So, let’s say you borrowed a library book or got a hold of something you suspected was covered in viral particles. The thing to do is put it somewhere, wash your hands thoroughly, and wait for three days until you touch it again. Four, if you’re feeling nervous.

The thing about hand washing is that we have to be aware of where our hands have been and what they’ve touched between hand washings. While this is currently socially unacceptable, you’re actually free to go about touching everything in sight until you wish to lick your fingers, wipe your eyes or pick your nose.

Photo: Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

It’s at that point that you need to consider where your hands have been. Wash before you do any of those things (and please, after as well).

And please, please, with plain soap. This is all it takes to remove things from your hands, from dirt to microscopic particles. It is not necessary to attempt to kill them on your hands.

Plain old soap will actually begin to disturb the coating on the virus, disrupting its ability to be nasty. Apart from washing it down the drain, that’s all you have to do. Anti-bacterial soap is fully unnecessary (especially if you’re working with a virus). Not only that, but they interfere with your own beneficial bacteria in the long run. The majority of anti-bac soaps contain a nasty compound called triclosan, which I’ll be talking about next week.

So when you’ve been out and about, the first thing you should do on arriving home is…. (I’ll let you guess). This virus is actually quite fragile outside of the body. Simple soap and water, or a mild alcohol solution will remove it from anything you bring into the house. It is not necessary to kill the little beastie, but simply to remove it and not allow it to contaminate anything else.

The Body

Once the invader has gained entry to our body, we are not alone and defenseless. As we’ve seen already in previous articles, the body mounts an immediate response. I talked about setting fire to the enemy, but all it takes is a slight elevation in temperature to slow down the abilities of a virus to do its dirty work. With a more significant rise in temperature, it starts the killing field.

In fact, if the invader is a truly dangerous one, the body knows not to kill it at all. (Some are more dangerous “dead” than “alive”.) Our macrophages’ superpower is to be pacmen. They go around gobbling up the virus, engulfing it alive and trapping it inside itself. Then the macrophage dies, and the body comes along, sees debris and sends in a cleanup crew. It is expelled with all of the other garbage (metabolic waste) from our bodies.

Photo:  Samantha Hurley on Burst

When the body is feuding with these invaders and gobbling them up, our normal operations are neglected in favour of all of this action. This is why we feel tired, lethargic, achy and maybe feverish. There’s a war going on, an enormous amount of focused activity. It’s also why we don’t feel like eating much, because our digestion is shut down so that the body’s energy is channeled to becoming well again, using up its reserves.

Please bear in mind that the virus is not actually alive. It is not intelligent. It does not think or feel or have any desire to attack us. It just is. It is a tiny fragment of RNA in a protective coating. If we so much as disrupt the coating, it’s toast. You don’t even have to destroy it. It’s done. It is actually quite fragile out in the open world without the body as its host.

Superpowers

When a healthy body attacks an invader, not only does they body usually come out victorious, but it remembers its enemy and the first 72 hours of troupe assembling is cut down to just a few hours. This army is equipped and waiting, on guard for us at all times and stronger with each new bit of intelligence it acquires.

When we become “immune” to something, it doesn’t mean we’ll never be sick when it comes around again. It means that the time to fight it and the amount of energy required will be minimal. Sometimes we don’t even notice that it’s going on.

We treat the body like it’s an idiot. And we must stop this. The body is a masterpiece of intelligent action, and grows, maintains and heals us at all times until we commit it to the earth. We must approach our bodies with grace and reverence, feeding it properly and caring for it as our temple. It will, in turn, reward our efforts with resilient health, even (and maybe especially) during times of transient illness.

  1. References:
  2. Pathophysiology by Carol Porth
  3. The Immune System

The Care and Feeding of the Immune System

kitten exploring plant
Photo: Dimitri Houtteman on Unsplash

Having considered how important the microbiome, all those lovely bugs in our guts, is to our immune system, we can see how easy it might be to have some influence over it.

The digestive system, as we know it, isn’t just for food processing. It does a host of other things.

Our gut bugs, properly called “intestinal flora” take up residence in the delicate folds of our intestinal walls. Once settled, the work they do is incredible.

Obviously they help to digest and absorb nutrients from food. Like the skin, they also stand as a barrier against invaders – bad bacteria, harmful viruses, and injurious parasite. In each category there are good guys, so they also differentiate between friend and foe.

Good Bugs’ Work

The bugs also help with detoxification and act like a second liver. Fewer good bugs in the gut means more work for the liver itself. They help handle stress through their effect on our hormones, and help us with a good night’s sleep. A cool gut is also a cool body, as these bugs also assist us in the control of inflammation.

More important, the gut and all its bacteria have a profound influence on the immune system, and is actually our biggest immune system organ, according to Dr. Perlmutter. It does this by actually regulating the immune response. Why is this important to immunity? It’s because when we are attacked by an invader, most recently the dreaded COVID-19 virus, the body begins its response (so we believe currently) with the innate system’s non-specific response, which includes fire. We start a fever to try to burn out the enemy at the gate.

This is not the “cytokine storm” we are starting to hear about. That’s a wild-fire that adopts a scorched earth policy. A healthy gut with plenty of healthy bugs helps our body to produce the inflammatory response, which has its own shut off valves. It sets fire to the enemy, not the house. And it puts the fire out when the job is done.

If the gut is not healthy, or we lack the full complement of good bugs, we can lose ground to the enemy invaders. This makes it harder to recover from specific bacterial or viral agents.

Photo: Austin Ban on Unsplash

This lets us imagine that we have only good bugs in our system (if we are already healthy). Not so, according to Perlmutter. We contain at every moment through our lives potentially life-threatening organisms that are only held in check by a healthy immune system.

The important thing is that everything is in balance. If our body went after each one of these, it would be like a eugenicist trying to cleanse the world of all its undesirables. And, really, we’ve been there, done that. And it never works out well.

3 Enemies of the Immune System

  1. Anything that kills or harms the composition of bacterial colonies. This includes chemicals and ingredients in our food (like preservatives, sugar and gluten), our water (chlorine) and drugs like antibiotics.
  2. A lack of nutrients that support many families of good bugs, and feeding ourselves with junk that bad bugs love. We starve out the good guys and let the trouble makers proliferate.
  3. Stress. Ah yes. Research on this single beastie continues and the news about it gets worse and worse.

But, you can imagine looking at this list, that it is not like watching the news. It is not hopeless, and there’s a great deal we can do to improve our situation.

Are preservatives, chlorine and antibiotics necessary? Yes, indeedy they are. The trick is to use them properly and not in excess.

Feeding the Immune System

So now we can see that improving our immune system may not be complicated after all. In very simple terms, we begin to reverse the effects of the immune system’s enemies. We can take pro-biotics to repopulate the system when the good bugs have been killed by antibiotics or chemical influences. We need to remember, though, that they also need food.

Photo: Amanda Kirsh from Burst

These are the pre-biotics that include fermented foods – sauerkraut, yogurt and kefir, kombucha or tempeh, kimchi and pickled anything. But there are foods rich in prebiotics, such as onions, garlic, leeks, asparagus and chicory root. If you haven’t got into dandelion greens yet, they are a powerhouse of goodness. (My favourite is to make pesto out of a handful of leaves.)

Coffee, tea, wine and chocolate are back on the menu to loud applause. This is because of their polyphenols, which are powerful antioxidants that help to protect the body and the microbiome. They also have anti-inflammatory properties that keep the right amount of fire going in their proper hearths.

Stress

So far, so good. But that last point is the trickiest one; coming away from the chronic, unremitting stress that is part of our lives. The most difficult part of this balance is that stress affects the gut bacteria, but the guts also affect our levels of stress, so that we can create one mighty tangle.

Stress hormones (norepinephrine especially) can alter the behaviour of the gut’s bugs, making aggressive and dangerous zombies out of perfectly nice neighbours. This shift can quickly occur when for example, under super stress, we have an attack of IBS and bam, the whole gut evacuates. Most people have experienced this at least once. It’s the body’s response to a sudden super stress, because when the tiger appears in front of you, the last thing you need is bladder, stomach or bowel contents slowing you down.

When we’re already under stress, and a new stress comes along, or that last straw is gently placed on top of everything else, we can over react, flying into a totally inappropriate reaction than is called for in the situation. This affects our relationships, both personal and professional.

Stress, therefore, is something to be handled carefully. Learning how to breathe deeply and calmly is the first and easiest step. The breath is built right into the body, and is simple and effective medicine for as long as you are on the planet. If you don’t or can’t meditate, learn to now. Your physical and emotional health depend on it.

Supplements

Dr. Permutter suggests 5 important supplements that work in sync with gut bacteria. They are:

  • DHA (Omega 3): particularly for brain health
  • Turmeric: an anti-inflammatory and antioxidant, it also helps improve sugar metabolism
  • Coconut oil: to reduce inflammation
  • Alpha-lipoic acid (in with your Omegas): powerful antioxidant for the brain
  • Vitamin D: actually a hormone, this “vitamin” has far-reaching benefits beyond bone health. It protects our neurons in the brain by regulating the gut bacteria. In North America, we tend to get enough in the summer (if not slathered in sunscreen), but overall we are thought to be at deficient levels, especially over the long winter (which includes any day our skin is covered in cloth – which tends to be 10 months of the year).
Photo: David Salter from Burst

Vitamin D

Important to the current fear of COVID-19, sufficient vitamin D stores allow the body to build cathelecidins . These play a crucial role in both the innate and adaptive systems, in three ways;

  • they help to eliminate harmful invaders (very accurate snipers)
  • they help to modulate our own immune response, (calm and measured response) and
  • they promote wound healing, (a MASH tent right on the battlefield).

If we are deficient in vitamin D, seasonally or generally, we can’t hope to harness this crucial fighting power. This happens to many North Americans over winter, as we go indoors for several months at a time. Just imagine what happened to us all during a lengthy lock down. 10 years ago, taking vitamin D was a scandalous idea, with a modest recommended daily dose of about 2000 IUs. Now, doctors are coming around to it. (Be careful, though. 15 minutes in the sun will earn you 10,000 units, but taking that much orally will push you into toxic levels. See a nutritionist.)

It is even being suggested that those deficient in vitamin D, and therefore not manufacturing cathelecidins, do not do well with the dreaded COVID. So, if you only take one supplement, this is the one to consider, for the moment anyway.

Otherwise, protect your guts and their critters. Eat the way your grandma taught you to (except for the bread, because wheat has been bastardized since then). Sleep well, live calmly, filter the chlorine out of your tap water and get some sunshine.

Keep your fear down, too. Fear is one of our greatest stressors, and has the power, all by lonesome, to blow great holes in our immune defenses .

  • References:
  • Brain Maker, by Dr. David Perlmutter
  • The Mind-Gut Connection, by Dr. Emeran Mayer
  • Science Direct

More on the Immune System

Last week we had a quick overview of the immune system, looking only at two of the supposed five parts – the innate system and the adaptive, or acquired, system. In knowing more about how the system works to protect us, we can find ways to nurture and protect it in return.

Photo: John Barkiple on Unsplash

Our understanding of the immune system was established in 1915 and developed somewhat until 1950, when we recognized the two parts of it. This is what is still taught in schools and appears in textbooks. Since then we have come to understand three other parts and how they interact.

The Two-Box Model of the Immune System

When a virus first comes in, the innate system meets it and creates non-specific strategies to start the fight. Their weapons are macrophages to eat them, and white blood cells that just start shooting at everything. These exist in all that lovely goo that resides in the eyes, nose, mouth, and the lining of our interior cells. This is the first 72 hour response that begins immediately on contact with an invader.

All the while, the adaptive system has been building up for the fight, generating antibodies. These are very specific, because while the fight has been going on at the front, these guys have been figuring out exactly who the enemy is and how it behaves. Their weapons are the B and T cells we talked about last week. This is the “2 box model” of the immune system.

New Discoveries

Between these two is the interferon system (IFN). First identified in 1957 by virologists Isaacs and Lindemann, the interferon was understood as single cytokines or cell signalling proteins. They numbered them in Greek, which is always cool and impressive.

What they found was that these signalling proteins were what actually woke up the specifics of the adaptive system and allowed it to identify and compare the new enemy with others that had already attacked.

What has been discovered more recently is that the interferon system is also a modulator that allows the body to know when to shut things down (once the virus has been defeated) so that it doesn’t continue generating antibodies that could begin to attack the body’s healthy cells. This is the difference between a natural inflammatory response and the so-called cytokine storm that doesn’t have the shut off valves.

The Microbiome

Over the last 20 years we have come to appreciate the fourth sub-system: the microbiome. This contains all of the lovely bugs that keep us healthy. To date, it is believed that we contain about 10 trillion bacteria in the gut and throughout the body, and possibly another 100 trillion viruses (the virome). So we’re not “mostly water” after all. We’re mostly bugs.

This is a brand new area of health research. They are investigating this now because the ratio of bacteria in our body apparently determines our level of health. (More on this in about 50 years.) People in the field of gastroenterology consider the gut and its microbiome to be your first brain.

This system, as we’re finding out, communicates intimately and directly with our neural system – the nerves and the second brain. Dr. David Perlmutter talks about this important connection in his book Brain Maker. The state and health of the gut directly affects brain health (and mental health).

In addition, the microbiome is communicating with the innate immune system, the adaptive system and the interferon system, each of which is also communicating with the others. Each one is also modulating all of the others. This is likely only the beginning of our understanding of the immune system. It is a highly complex and beautifully choreographed system.

So, now, how do we look after this incredible system?

I’ll be going into detail next week, but it likely won’t surprise you. It goes along the line of eat well, sleep well, exercise and keep your stress down. We’ll discuss more specifically how these things work to protect your body and your immune system as we move forward into a post-COVID world.

Working from Home

It’s a blessing and a curse. Managers and owners insisted it could not be done. Categorically no, can’t be done. Then COVID hit, and poof, like magic we were working from home, no questions, just instant compliance.

Photo of Cat at Desk: Sarah Pflug, Burst
Human, I’ve called this meeting…

Now, I know not everyone can be counted on to perform when the beady eye of the boss is not falling directly on them, but let’s be honest – most grown-ups can do their jobs, especially if they are good jobs and you have team buy-in.

But working from home can present its challenges too. Where’s the door to close and lock at 5:00 and on the weekend? Will my phone never stop pinging? How much equipment do I need to be professional and organized? These days, a computer seems to be enough. But then there are all the extra files, the knowledge that Steve down the hall has, and a myriad small things that make up an office space.

Here are some tips for keeping on track at home:

  1. Make sure your tech and connection are up to snuff. Think about the level of security you need. Is this something you have to pony up for or will the company cover it? Even if they pay for it, it can be a hassle to have everything upgraded. You’ll likely also be doing some conferencing together in large or small numbers. The managers will likely select the platform. Bone up on these so you don’t feel lost or waste time trying to figure out the controls.
  2. Be clear on the expectations. People can have trouble working from home and either slack off or give it way too much. If it is not clear what is required of you, you can feel lost and flounder while trying your hardest to get things done. You can get caught doing busy work from home too, or you get so engrossed in work that you forget to take stretch breaks, coffee breaks and lunch. Knowing what is expected allows you to build your framework.
  3. Trust. This is a great time for managers to see what their staff is made of. It’s also a good time for associates to see whether they are trusted to do their work. Or not. If you have the feeling that the reporting has got out of hand on what your daily tasks are comprised of, you may feel undermined and as though the company has zero trust in you as a valued employee. If you’re not sure, keep a private log of your daily work activities.

Keeping your health and sanity at home.

  1. Be very careful with your ergonomics. These days many people have some form of ergonomic assessment offered at their workplace, with the right chair, the right desk height, lighting, position of equipment, etc. But suddenly being transposed to their home environment, many people are throwing postural caution to the wind. Neck and shoulder strain, and tension headaches easily result from these three to six months of working from home. BU Today has some excellent ergonomic advice.
  2. Know your hours and clock out on time. Despite everyone worrying whether employees will be slacking off, it’s more likely that you will over-do things and work too long, and probably too hard. Now is the time to create firm boundaries around your work, especially when it’s staring at you from the dining room table in the evening or on weekends. Tidy your desk and put a symbolic cover over it (or a real one).
  3. Remember your good stress habits. Take those stretch breaks. While we may feel guilty getting up from our desk to change a load of laundry, count this as a movement break. You can mull over a problem while you are sorting your colours. Often we can be much more productive at home. Make your work hours count, so that your leisure time counts too.

And remember, do you live to work, or work to live?

Re-frame your priorities, even though your work has recently barged into your home. Keep good boundaries around work and home, so your responsibilities don’t run riot over your private life. When you are able to break cleanly from work, in the evenings and on weekends, you can return to it renewed and with greater creativity in your problem solving.

By relaxing fully in your time off, you are caring for your work life by infusing it with the energy and enthusiasm that comes from rest.

Overview of the Immune System

The basic understanding of the immune system is that it has two general sides: innate (or natural) immunity, and adaptive (or acquired) immunity. Our understanding since the 1960s has expanded to see the interplay between these two and three other systems: the microbiome (healthy guts), the interferon system (the all-alert system) and the neural system (nerves). For our purposes here, we’ll concentrate on the first two.

The Innate Immune System

This is also called the natural or non-specific immune system. It has four major components.

Healthy, intact skin is a formidable physical barrier.
  1. Epithelial cells – skin and mucus membranes (think nose, mouth, lungs). The skin is our first line of defense and it does two things. It acts as a barrier, so stuff can’t get in. Healthy skin has densely packed cells that keep things out. It’s also several layers thick and does continuous shedding and renewal. It is also covered with a salty, slightly acidic layer that contains keratin – a protective protein. Mucous is lovely, slimy and sticky, entrapping microbes and unwanted foreigners. More on the goo later.
  2. Phagocytes and Macrophages – these are a type of white blood cell that engulf and digest the little invaders, eating them alive.
  3. Natural Killer (NK) cells – and yup, they go for the heart of the critters like poison.
  4. Finally, the Complement System – this amplifies the inflammatory response, sets the building on fire and at the same time, calls in the army (the adaptive system). If you’ve heard recently of the “cytokine storm”, this isn’t it. The fire from the complement system knows how much to burn and when to self-extinguish. This happens in a healthy immune system.

The Innate system is able to recognize that something foreign is in the body. This is called recognition of the self and non-self. It does this by recognizing certain sugars, fats and proteins on the invader that help them survive, but that are not present in human cells. It doesn’t know the name of the foreigner, it just knows it’s not us.

This system is the first line of defense and is up and running within minutes or hours of first contact. It generally lasts 72 hours as a first line of defense, while the adaptive system builds up the army that will do the specific fighting and killing of the invaders. It is during this time when we have those vague, “flu-like” symptoms, but you’re not feeling truly unwell just yet.

The Adaptive Immune System

Here’s where things get really cool. The adaptive or acquired system, also called the specific system, is built up in this way: through previous exposure to infections and foreign agents. In this way, the body names the enemy and then recognizes it from then on, very specifically.

It is first acquired during breastfeeding while the baby gains protection through mother’s milk. Slowly we expose our children to more germs. First we stop sterilizing everything, then playing on the floor, then outdoors in playgrounds, touching pets and dirt and coming into full contact with the world. All the while their own immune system is beginning to build and strengthen. They begin to recognize the kids in the neighbourhood and their germs too.

What if the germ’s brother comes to call (aka mutation)? No problem. When a mutated version of the same invader comes to call, for instance, a new mutation of one of the flu strains, the body takes much less time to build up the army required to fight, because half of them are already on standby, just shining their boots.

Photo: Samantha Hurley from Burst
Highly strategic weaponry is developed by the body.

Your lymphatic system is actively involved in immunity. There are two types of lymphocytes that come into play here: the B cells and the T cells.

B cells form the principle defense by splitting into two camps: plasma cells and anti-body secreting cells. In this way they can go to work in the blood stream and in all that glorious goo of the mucosal surfaces. Straight into the fray, they spot the enemy and go in for the kill. This is partly why we create so much phlegm and snot to sneeze, blow and cough out – it expels the enemy where possible instead of dealing with too much battle field cleanup.

T cells are said to be cytotoxic (or poisonous to the cell) and are especially good at spotting and killing viruses. The first thing they do is develop receptors that get up close and personal with the infected cells. Then they figure out and recognize the proteins on the surface of it, which were graciously donated by the virus. Then, the T cells signal the destruction of the infected cell and store the pattern in the Library of Angry Reactions for future use.

We’ve all now seen the handy ball of red fluff with the tiny plungers sticking out of it, that is supposed to be the COVID virus. The B and T cells will recognize the plungers as well as the fluff, and the body’s reaction to it. Both the B and T cells have memory and together create antibodies. These will remain in the body and prowl around, ready to see, recognize and fight the red fluff and plungers and the reaction they bring. If they’re now purple with yellow spots, the body will still recognize the pattern and the reactions, and know how to deal with them. This information has been shared throughout the system and remains for your lifetime.

This system takes a bit of time to get up and running, generally a few days (that 72 hour period) when you’re first sick and maybe feverish. This is because there’s a fair amount of background intelligence work to be done and building up the forces able to deal with it the first time around.

One of the problems with the SARS outbreak was that it proliferated so quickly that it overwhelmed the innate system before the adaptive system could get up and running. This one (COVID) is apparently not so fast working. Highly infectious (a good traveller) but not as obnoxious. The vast majority of those infected recover at home, with no interventions. We are being fear-mongered into thinking it is a killer of mass proportions, and that we are helpless in its path. Not so.

Trust in your body. Vaccinate, or don’t, but know that your body is a marvel of first and second defense. It is a miracle of healing for the whole of our lives. Constantly in search of homeostasis, a healthy immune system adapts to everything that is thrown at it. Once it has recognized and built its defenses against something, the memory and the fighting ability are there for life. As we age and become weaker, the fight goes out of us a bit. But the memory is long.

Healing is our superpower.

Reference: Pathophysiology by Carol Porth

Won’t Get Fooled Again?

Paying for gas a while back, I was being upsold on various chocolatey treats, chewy things and gum. I chuckled at the girl and said that maybe when they’ve stopped lacing gum with aspartame, I might have some again.

“Ah, but,” she said, “these ones have no aspartame! In fact, it’s good for you.”

And there it was. Vitamin Gum.

Sugar free, no aspartame, “A Healthier Chew”, if you believe the label. Fascinated, I just had to buy some.

There are direction on this gum too. You must chew for 5 – 10 minutes to ensure release of nutrients. Silly me. I thought gum was to be chewed until the taste was gone, and then stuck under your chair. Well, not any more.

Now, you can get the first six letters of your vitamins, all 10% RDI (recommended daily intake) per two pieces of gum; A, a range of Bs, C, D, E, and Folic Acid. You’re limited to 10 pieces per day, says the package, so the most you’ll get is 50% of these essential vitamins. But hey, what could be easier? So many people tell me they don’t like “taking pills” (including supplements), so this must be the ultimate in easy health.

But wait! Let’s first look at the sweeteners that are there.

Aspartame is a potent neurotoxin (brain and nerve damage), long recognized as one of the most dangerous food additives we have on the market. It was discovered by a chemist at Searle in 1965. It was approved in the States for use in dry goods in 1981, according to Dr. Mercola, and for carbonated beverages in 1983. But get this. Monsanto bought Searle in 1985 and split the company into two entities – Searle Pharma and Nutrasweet. Now just guess how good this additive is for you.

Good thing there isn’t any of this stuff in the Vitamin Gum. It’s sweetened with sucralose, malitol and malitol syrup and neotame, and maintains freshness with BHT, the just slightly less toxic cousin of BHA.

Both BHT and BHA create brain-splitting migraines for those who are susceptible to them.

Sucralose, also called Splenda, is well known to people. Less well known, is that it has a profound and damaging effect on your good gut bacteria, and has been linked to type 2 diabetes, heart disease, metabolic syndrome, and obesity.

Neotame, according to Dr. Mercola, is like aspartame on steroids. It is a chemical derivative of aspartame. And guess what! It’s made by NutraSweet (aka Monsanto). Neotame is “13,000 times sweeter than table sugar, and about 30 times sweeter than aspartame”, according to Mercola. This is improved aspartame, more stable at high temperatures and even more toxic than before. The problem with both of them is that as the body breaks it down (partly with heat) they produce formaldehyde, which is toxic, even in small amounts.

Malitol is a sugar alcohol, a type of hydrogenated starch, that is associated with stomach and abdominal pain, diarrhea and excessive gas and flatulence. (I hear you smirking!) Malitol syrup is hydrogenated corn syrup. Most North American corn is GMO, courtesy of Monsanto, so as innocuous as this one sounds, it’s probably not the best thing for you.

*sigh*

Remember when table sugar was the “White Death” and just about the worst thing for you? Good old sucrose. I don’t believe there is any gum on the market that has sugar (and only sugar). But, the search continues, because frankly, I miss chewing gum.  Pur gum seems to be a good alternative, as they use Xylitol for sweetener, and this is a natural product.

If you’re after easy and entertaining vitamins, though, be aware that the chewables and gummy versions also contain aspartame and other nasty sweeteners, but probably not sugar. If you want to take vitamins without the nasty additives, you might have to learn to swallow the big capsules.

This article was first published to LinkedIn on January 4, 2016.  It has been refreshed and updated for its home turf.

Shine Your Light

How foolish does it seem to light a lantern while the sunset blazes behind it? Who will see this feeble flame? This is how life may feel to many at the moment. My little flame, my inadequate little contributions can hardly make a difference.

But night is coming. Your light will be needed. Feed it with the light of others and you can build a bonfire. One small flame can be extinguished easily, but a larger fire, one that has fuel from underneath and all around, cannot be conquered so easily.

Find fuel in terms of friendships, connection to those who inspire you, mentoring from those you aspire to, books, resources or coaching. Find ways to unlock the power within you. Learn what you need to move forward.

This doesn’t have to be a college or university model, unless you want it. And even then, this can be done part time. It will get done, don’t sweat it. Learn from a progression of jobs that teach you what you want to know. Read voraciously. Gather this to yourself and build yourself up with it.

You are your most precious asset. It is important that you pay attention to this asset and grow it consciously and in the direction that you want. Let’s say you have what you consider to be a menial job, because you didn’t have the opportunity to do further education. But you’re interested in a particular topic or sport, let’s say. Get involved with others who are interested in those things and start building a community of like-minded people around you.

This doesn’t have to be for earning or profit. It can be purely for your enjoyment, to build up a part of your life that is of interest to you or important to you. The next level could be to read everything you can about it. Let’s say you love music, but especially classic rock from the 70s (or hip hop or whatever genre you favour). Think about your favourite musicians in the genre and find what has been written about them. Study it and become a mini expert.

Or let’s say you are a street sweeper, and you are dedicated to your work. You want to be the best damned street sweeper that ever lived. What can you find out about it? Maybe history is your thing. You could research when this work started. Before concrete and paving or after? How old is the skill? How has it changed since it started? How has the equipment evolved? What is used in different parts of the world? Could you become more valuable to your employer with this knowledge, or is it just for your pleasure?

In the end, our life can be full and rich, regardless of our circumstances or how much money we have, or what opportunities we had as kids. Learn to play an instrument or to speak another language. Not only is this good for your brain, but for your soul as well.

“At night, a candle’s brighter than the sun.”

Feed your fire.

Scary Monsters

Fear is a normal, life saving fight or flight response, so don’t beat yourself up for being afraid.  This is a brilliant, visceral short-term strategy for the mind and body.  All systems are on high alert and we’re ready to do what it takes, no matter what. 

However, this is not for the long term, consistent stress we have with modern living.  If you live in fear, you must stop it now.  It will take down your mental, emotional and physical health, slowly destroying your immune system.  So, “feel the fear”, as they say, but find a way to establish whether you are safe.  If not, get to safety.  If you are safe in this moment, think about reduction strategies. 

The familiar “fight or flight” response is actually made up of three parts – fight, flee or freeze.  This is a strategy for some animals in nature, playing dead so that the beast will pass them by.  In our minds, this can also happen, but generally with a poor outcome.  The problem is that when we are frozen with fear we cannot be creative and come up with resourceful solutions.  There is no innovation in our thought process, and we will usually make poor decisions out of fear.

Tackling the scary monster is difficult at every age and circumstance.  Some strategies follow here.

casual zombie
Photo: Sarah Pflug from Burst

1. Better the devil you know…

Often the uncertainty of a scenario is the most frightening thing.  Just naming the fear takes the Bogey man down a few notches. 

Have you ever watched how a scary movie gets made?  It’s pretty hokey when you take out the scary music and jarring sound effects.  And then when you see how the scenes are chopped up and sewn back together, the whole mystery is gone.  (Don’t do this if you love scary movies). 

Name and identify the fear, writing down exactly what it is you’re afraid of.  Some of its power will be gone instantly and you have a tangible problem to work with.

Sometimes the devil you know is the one you put up with, no matter how awful, because the devil you don’t know is even more scary.  Same applies for this.  Don’t put up with this familiar devil.  Explore the one you don’t know.  That one might just be the answer you’re looking for.

2. Worst case scenario 

We get stuck in an undefined but terrible outcome.  Sit somewhere safe and comfortable and imagine how this problem could go.  If you see a disaster waiting, ask how you would handle it, if that really came true.  Would you make changes to your current path?  Could you avert the outcome?  See if you can imagine another, different terrible outcome.  What then?  See if you can imagine averting the consequences and arriving safely at a good conclusion.

3. Proportion

See if you can bring down the magnitude of the problem.  You’ve already looked at the worst case scenario.  Now see how it stacks up to other areas in your life, to other people’s problems, or to other problems you’ve solved in the past.  This might indeed be the biggest challenge you’ve faced.  Go back over past successes and examine how you got to the positive outcome.  Congratulate yourself on those less important decisions and see them as foundation-building for this whopper. 

You can probably do it, you know.

frustrated man on computer
Photo: Matthew Henry from Burst

4. Research 

Again, it’s the unknown we fear the most. 

So go on a fact-finding mission and while you keep this beast at the door, and think theoretically before you commit to the fight.  Find out (theoretically) what it will take and what the likely outcome of each possible strategy will be.  You don’t have to do anything yet, but you will be stripping away the unknown.  Having an exit strategy will serve you in two ways; you will know how to get out, and it can make staying easier because your bags are already packed.

5.  How to eat an elephant

I’m sure you’ve heard this.  It’s one bite at a time. 

So chunk down the problem into sections, or stages of solving, or if it’s completely overwhelming, just one little thing you can do, in any order, to get towards the answer.  Then take another bite.  Chew and swallow. 

As you draw closer to the solution, with baby steps, some of the fear will have dissipated.  That’s the biggest hurdle.  Then you can take larger steps and maybe create an orderly plan to get you the rest of the way.  Suddenly, it’s not so much a terrifying situation but more of a problem that you’re on the way to solving, with a plan, some steps to get you there, and the end goal in sight.