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Health Hack #63 - A Hidden Value of Having Pets

Gut Feelings

We’ve previously explored the dangers inherent in living in an overly sanitized world. More and more allergies and autoimmune conditions are cropping up in intensity and quantity, often due in part to a misguided approach to both avoidance and cleanliness. When we take a food like peanuts and we ban them from schools due to the potential that one student may have an allergy, we increase the probability of transferring the same hysteria into the child’s home, and run the risk of reverse engineering the same problem we seek to avoid. By way of a peanut prohibition in a child’s life, an allergy is given a better opportunity to survive; for it's moderate, early exposures that are often precisely what our immune systems need in order to recognize a food as a food, and not as some type of foreign invader.

On the cleanliness front, we’ve begun losing sight of the fact that we’re a bacteria-based species living in a bacteria filled world. While there are plenty of pathogens worth avoiding - and COVID has certainly reminded us of this - we can overdo it with the antibacterials, and the fastidiousness that we often hold towards dirt and the outside world in general. The ability for us to eradicate germs was a tremendous leap forward, and completely revolutionized medicine and longevity as we know it. But like social media - which seemed purely beneficial 15 years ago in its uncanny ability to connect one another - it doesn’t take all that much for these unicorn discoveries to be taken a bit too far. The combination of excess avoidance and hyper-cleanliness has contributed to an overall decline in human health, particularly in the U.S., land of the germaphobe.  

The gut microbiome has come into prominence over the last decade in the variety of roles that it has shown to play: from basic digestion all the way to the production of serotonin, a master hormone largely responsible for controlling our mood. Kombucha went from an obscure Asian tea fermentation process to a staple health beverage virtually overnight, riding the coattails of the microbiome fervor. (Kombucha, through its fermentation, is rich in “probiotics”, which are healthy-considered bacteria that can take up residence in our gut and thereby improve its diversity and health.)

In addition to the surge in kombucha’s popularity, fermented foods like krauts (especially kimchi) have found a brighter spotlight in lieu of all of the hype surrounding gut health. And as we’ve tackled in an earlier article, foods rich in soluble fiber (aka “prebiotics”) will often work in tandem with probiotics, as soluble fiber is the food that many probiotics need to survive and thrive. Gut research has really brought the importance of fiber in our diets into full view.

Value Beyond Companionship

A common storyline throughout many of our articles is the notion that there are far more variables than our diet and exercise routine that dictate our state of well being. There is sleep, which is one we’ve covered in much depth, and on multiple occasions. Socialization, which we’ve placed into context as being more challenging nowadays, with lockdown restrictions remaining in place. Meditation, which has supreme benefits towards stress reduction and our overall neural health.  (To access our entire catalogue of articles, click here.)

Interestingly, pet ownership - namely of dogs and outdoor cats - falls nicely into this same category. The obvious would be as a subset of socialization, as man’s best friend. But beneath the surface - literally beneath the surface - their impact is felt at a gut level.

In the world of gut health, microbial diversification is extremely important. So is the quantity of bacterial species. Studies have shown that the presence of dogs in a household will, on average, amplify 56 separate classes of indoor bacterial species, which is precisely the objective of all pricy probiotic supplements we find all around us nowadays.

In what would be analogous to these home outdoor pet findings, a 2016 study focused on immune response development in children from two distinct farming communities. Amish children are typically raised in a farming culture heavily reliant upon animals. Hutterite farming communities, on the other hand, are far more mechanized by modern machinery. The study revealed that Amish children were far less likely (4x) to develop asthma, even more unlikely (6x) to develop allergic sensitivities, and inhabited homes with vastly more microbial diversity found in dust samples. The findings clearly theorized a strong connection between animal interaction and human immune health.

There’s often irony at play within households, regarding what’s permissible to the humans versus what the dogs are able to get away with. Keep your shoes off the couch, and don’t even dare letting those shoes touch the bed. You were just outside - wash your hands before you eat. It’s proper and hygienic to shower each and every day. Meanwhile the dogs are all over the couch and bed, often fresh from a barefoot walk through unsanitized territory. They have their hands washed once every two weeks, if that; only if the grime they’ve stepped through happens to stick to their paws more than usual. Showering? Maybe a few times per month?  In many cases not even monthly.

At the end of the day, the exposure that dogs (and outdoor cats) encounter outside the home isn’t all that different from the bacteria we encounter outside our home. But as we know, old habits can be impossible to break. If it doesn’t feel quite right to let our guards down and acknowledge that dirt isn’t “dirty” per se, then let us be happy hypocrites and allow some furry friends into our homes. We can now appreciate them on a level that runs far more deeply than their companionship.