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Healthy "Artful Living" Moment #6: Beating Infectious Diseases the #5 Killer

Posted on February 18 2018

An infection is caused by bacteria, viruses, fungi or some other microorganism invading the body and then beginning to multiply, which causes your immune system to fight the invading organism. Disease occurs when the cells in your body are damaged or killed as a result of the infection, producing signs and symptoms of an illness. In his book, How Not To Die, Dr. Michael Greger outlines steps you can take to help protect yourself from dying due to infectious disease, which kills about 57,000 Americans annually.

It is impossible to eliminate the threat of infectious disease, because there are so many different potentially dangerous microorganisms in the environment and they can enter the body through what we eat and what we breath, both processes which we must constantly do in order to continue to live. But, it is possible to reduce the threat by reducing the likelihood of ingesting or inhaling dangerous organisms, and by strengthening the body’s immune system which fights off these invaders.

Our immune system is made up of billions of white blood cells (like neutrophils and B cells), proteins called antibodies, and various organs which together team up to continually protect our bodies from the countless invaders we intake every minute (for example, in every breath you take you inhale thousands of bacteria, and in every bite you eat you consume millions more). And in addition to these invaders, our bodies already harbor latent infectious microorganisms which are being constrained by our immune system from causing damage, but when our immune system weakens, can emerge and make us sick, like shingles. And, our immune systems tend to degrade with age. So, the older you are, the more likely you are to get sick (gulp!).

However, our bodies are incredibly well designed to fight these diseases, so if we give them some help they can do marvelous things to keep us healthy. For example, every B cell in our body makes one type of antibody that is specific to one foreign molecular signature. In other words, there is a B cell in your body that is designed to make antibodies against the pollen of purple Siberian onion grass, and there is another B cell whose only job is to make antibodies against the proteins of bacteria that live in the thermal vents at the bottom of the ocean. Isn’t that incredible? Our bodies are so finely designed that we have built in defenses against every possible invader. What can we do to keep this marvelous defense system operating effectively?

An important clue comes from a study of 83 “seniors” (aged 65 to 85 years old) who were randomly divided into two groups. One group ate three or fewer daily servings of fruits and vegetables, while the other group ate five or more servings. They were all then vaccinated against pneumonia (which is a practice recommended for all seniors and which Medicare will pay for 100%). The vaccination primes the immune system to produce antibodies against a specific pneumonia pathogen (that’s how vaccinations are intended to work). The group eating five or more servings of fruits and vegetables per day for several months had an 82% greater protective antibody response to the vaccine than the group eating three or fewer servings. So, it appears that eating fruits and vegetables is a good way to help strengthen our immune response mechanisms.

It turns out that there are certain fruits and vegetables which are particularly effective in helping our immune system, including kale, broccoli, and red onions as well as apples and berries. Berries in particular not only reduce the deleterious effects of oxidative stress and inflammation in the body, but they also boost the levels of your body’s natural “killer” cells which are a type of white blood cell that is part of your “rapid response” first responder team fighting virus-infected and cancerous cells. You normally have about 2 billion of these killer cells patrolling your blood stream, but studies have shown that blueberries can boost your “killer” blood cells by as much as 100%.

Fruits and vegetables also enhance the good (probiotic) bacteria in your intestinal tract which have been shown to help reduce the incidence of the common cold and upper-respiratory-tract infections. And, it turns out that exercise can reduce your number of sick days by 25% to 50%, as well as prevent age-related decline in the immune system. Exercise boosts the level of an antibody called IgA (immunoglobulin, type A) which protects mucosal (moist) surfaces in your body, including the eyes, nostrils and mouth. About 95% of all infections start in the mucosal areas. Moderate exercise (30 minutes three times per week) increased IgA levels by 50% in a twelve-week study.

So, there is nothing revolutionary about these findings. We already know that we should consume 8 to 12 servings of a variety of fruits and vegetables every day and we should exercise regularly. Then why are so many people getting infections like the flu? Well, it’s because people aren’t necessarily doing what they know they should do. I can’t help you with the exercise issue (I go to the YMCA six mornings per week-how about joining me?), but I can help you with the fruits and vegetables part of a healthier lifestyle. Juice Plus whole food capsules (available at Objects of Desire Artful Living) will deliver your 8 to 12 servings of fruits and vegetables every day. Period. Done. Want to stay healthy? Do it.

Now, let’s address a special category of infectious diseases caused by animal borne pathogens which cause food poisoning. This is a subject near and dear to my heart as my two sons both did science fair projects in school that dealt with bacteria in chicken. We even toured a chicken processing plant as part of their research. This is also a somewhat shocking subject, because the American consumer is intentionally being sold contaminated food due to the fact that eliminating this danger would drive the cost of food up, and our whole food chain is built on cheap food.

The four most dangerous food borne pathogens are Campylobacter, Salmonella (both in chicken), Toxoplasma (pork), and Listeria (deli meats and dairy products). Salmonella is the biggest danger, found in both chicken and eggs. In 2010 more than 500,000,000 eggs were recalled because of this bacterium, which comes from fecal matter. Where does the fecal matter come from? The chickens that lay the eggs. The fecal bacteria are not on the egg shell, the bacteria are in the egg. Egg industry studies show that Salmonella in eggs can survive scrambled, over-easy and sunny-side up cooking methods. In fact, industry-funded researchers concluded, “The sunny-side-up method should be considered unsafe.” According to the Food and Drug Administration, 142,000 Americans are sickened each year by Salmonella-tainted eggs.

But eggs are only the tip of the iceberg. The real danger is chicken meat. Consumer Reports found that 97% of chicken breasts sold in a variety of retail stores were contaminated with bacteria that could make people sick (The High Cost of Cheap Chicken, February, 2014, p.30). It did not matter what store or brand of chicken was purchased, or whether the chicken was “organic” or not. And people do get sick-48 million people fall sick each year from eating tainted food. About 20% of people sickened with Salmonella are hospitalized. And the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta concluded that “more deaths were attributed to poultry than to any other commodity” based upon an analysis of food poisonings from 1998 to 2008. If you ever have an opportunity to tour a chicken processing plant like I have, you will quickly understand how and why 97 % of chicken breasts are contaminated with fecal bacteria from the intestines of the chickens being slaughtered.

Isn’t chicken safe if it is properly cooked to an internal temperature of 165 degrees? Yes, and it is because of that fact that the Washington D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the meat industry when sued by the American Public Health Association for selling meat contaminated with Salmonella. However, the problem is that the bacteria don’t stay in the chicken. When chicken is prepared (i.e. taken out of the package and handled before it is cooked) cross-contamination is likely to occur. In fact, most kitchen sinks have more fecal bacteria in them than do toilet seats. In a landmark study published as “The Effectiveness of Hygiene Procedures for Prevention of Cross-Contamination from Chicken Carcasses in the Domestic Kitchen” researchers visited five dozen homes and tested for the presence of bacteria after cooking chicken. What they found were fecal bacteria (Salmonella and Campylobacter) on cutting boards, utensils, cupboards, refrigerator handles, oven handles, door knobs, etc. Then the researchers gave the families specific instructions on how to safely handle the chicken (wash surfaces with hot water and detergent) but the researchers still found pathogenic fecal bacteria all over.

Current best practice includes not washing chicken before cooking because washing chicken tends to spray water droplets contaminated with bacteria up to six feet from the sink, thereby contaminating everything, including floors, as well as the arms and clothes of the cook, with the bacteria.

The good news is that these dangerous bacteria only can survive in your gut for about 10 days, so as long as your immune system is strong and can fight the potentially devastating effects of the bacteria, it can eventually wipe out the dangerous bacteria. Until you prepare your next chicken dinner.

Another infectious bacterium is Yersinia found in pork. Again, Consumer Reports tested nearly two hundred pork samples from cities across the country and found that more than two thirds of all the samples were contaminated, probably due to the way pigs are raised, crowded into pens with only about six square feet of space (approximately 2 feet by 3 feet) for each 200 pound hog. In an article published in National Hog Farmer entitled “Crowding Pigs Pays” the authors acknowledge that crowding pigs into tiny spaces presents problems like inadequate ventilation and health risks, but “crowding pigs a little tighter will make you more money.” And why not? Yersinia does not cause clinical disease in pigs, only humans. It doesn’t impact the industry’s bottom line, so why worry about it?

But, people worry. Families end up having to cope with these dangers because our meat and poultry and egg industries care about their profits more than the safety of their products. Some European countries have gotten Salmonella contamination down to about 2% of their chicken supply, because in those countries it is illegal to sell chicken tainted with the bacterium. So, the European consumer pays more for chicken, but it is safe chicken. We don’t have the benefit of those laws, so we have to do whatever we can to reduce the risk of Salmonella and Camplobacter cross-contamination. This is the main reason to consider using E-cloth brand microfiber cleaning cloths (available at Objects of Desire Artful Living), which capture over 99% of these bacteria from your hard kitchen surfaces. Why risk an infection when an $8 kitchen towel can help better protect you and your family?

But perhaps the scariest bacterium of all is Clostridium difficile, or C. diff. This “super bug” has been blamed for many hospital deaths, infects a quarter-million Americans each year, and costs our economy a billion dollars per year. The Centers for Disease Control found that 42% of packaged meat products sold in three national chain grocery stores contained C. diff. The United States has the highest reported levels of C. diff meat contamination in the world. It has been found in chicken, turkey, and beef, but pork contamination appears to be the major problem. C. diff is one of the leading causes of intestinal infections among baby piglets.

Cdiff won’t typically do anything to you if your immune system is strong (the reason that this bug is so dangerous in hospital settings is that many patients have impaired immune systems because of their illnesses), but it is called a “super bug” because it is so long-lived and difficult to get rid of. It can lie in wait inside your body until your immune defenses are weakened (perhaps by taking an antibiotic that disrupts your normal gut flora or from illness) and then it can emerge, causing a range of inflammatory bowel conditions including life-threatening toxic megacolon (50% survival rate).  

Cdiff is not killed by even two hours of cooking nor by alcohol-based hand sanitizers. It is extremely difficult to eliminate (which is one of the reasons it costs us a billion dollars per year-hospitals have to virtually sterilize their entire building when it breaks out). The thing you want to do to avoid this danger is to maintain the health of your immune system by eating your prescribed eight to twelve servings of a variety of fruits and vegetables every day and getting regular exercise.

Stay healthy!



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