This odd-sounding suggestion was part of a recent discussion paper by Professor Mark Spigelman of the UCL Centre for Infectious Diseases and International Health. In the paper, Spigelman questions the current practice of using broad-spectrum anti-bacterial agents on hospital staff’s hands and patients’ wounds, often stripping them of beneficial bacteria, only to lay a welcome mat for potentially deadly superbugs.
“Any student who has grown bacteria in a lab will know that they generally do not grow on top of one another,” he points out. “So when we wash our hands, we could actually be killing off harmless [normal bacteria] to the extent that we leave space for other bacteria, such as MRSA strains, to settle.
Spigelman suggests a better defense strategy may be to actually encourage the “good” bacteria (probiotics) so that they can crowd out and therefore discourage the growth of “bad” bacteria.
“Perhaps we should be thinking about using probiotics,” he says “and even dipping our hands after thorough washing into a solution which contains harmless bacteria, which could then colonize our skin and prevent pathogenic bacteria from settling on it.”
Spigelman’s idea may seem radical or even ridiculous to some. But for those of us in the natural health field, it makes good sense. Better yet, it’s a sign that modern medicine is beginning to understand and accept the great health potential of probiotics.
The term “probiotics” refers to a wide range of beneficial bacteria species that normally colonize a healthy intestinal tract. Along with aiding digestion and nutrient absorption, and supporting the immune system, probiotics compete for space with troublesome intestinal bacteria, including E. coli and C. difficile. Just as in Dr. Spigelman’s hand washing example, the more good intestinal bacteria we have inside, the less chance the bad bacteria have to take hold when they enter the system.
One of the main threats to healthy levels of good intestinal bacteria is the use of antibiotics. While these are often necessary and life-saving drugs, they do not distinguish between good and bad bacteria. As Health Canada explains on its website information on C. difficile, this nasty intestinal bug can settle in when good bacteria is sparse: “Using antibiotics increases the chance of developing C. difficile diarrhea. Treatment with antibiotics alters the normal levels of good bacteria found in the intestines and colon. When there are fewer of these good bacteria in our intestines and colon, C. difficile has the chance to thrive and produce toxins.”
It’s encouraging to learn that in some progressive hospitals, particularly in Europe, patients are routinely given probiotic supplements to help guard against hospital-acquired infections like C. difficile and associated diarrhea. I’m also encouraged to see some local doctors beginning to send patients to our store for high-quality probiotics to take along with an antibiotic prescription.
One of the most well researched supplements in this class is a probiotic yeast known as Saccharomyces boulardii. Along with encouraging the growth of good bacteria, S. boulardii helps to reduce the risk of antibiotic-associated diarrhea by limiting the ability of bacterial toxins to bind to the intestinal wall. Studies suggest that taking S. boulardii may also prevent a recurrence of C. difficile-related diarrhea, which is a common problem for many infected patients. We stock an S. boulardii product called Hospital Bacteria Defense made by the Canadian company New Roots.
While infection control specialists and hospital staff may be doing their best to control the spread of disease-causing pathogens in hospitals, we can also help protect ourselves. If you’re prescribed antibiotics, or are required to visit or stay in a hospital, consider a high-quality probiotic supplement to help boost protective, beneficial bacteria. After all, it may be a while before those hand sanitizer dispensers are filled with yogurt!
Sources: Annals of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, Nov 2005; Dig Dis Sci 1990;35:897-901; JAMA 1994;271:1913-1918; Clin Infect Dis 2000;31:1012-1017; Health Canada website (www.hc-sc.gc.ca)
Jason Sebeslav is the owner of The Peanut Mill Natural Foods Market, a full-service health and wellness store in St. Catharines. He has worked in the editorial department of alive magazine and his articles have appeared in many natural health publications. For more information about the store, visit www.thepeanutmill.com.
The approaches described in this publication are not offered as cures, prescriptions, diagnosis, or a means of diagnosis to different conditions. The Publishers assume no responsibility in the correct or incorrect use of this information as a form of treatment without the approval of your doctor.