SOAP STORY PART I | THE MICROBIOME
Amanda here. That's me in Fiji earlier this year. I love Fiji's intense humidity and deep belly "BULA!" greetings. Upon leaving this tropical paradise, I decided Fiji could keep it's kava, but I was takin' my tan. A few things my soulful travel partner in crime, Ciav, and I were not expecting to take home...a fungal ear infection for me and cellulitis (a bacterial skin infection) for him.
Once we got back home, it took him a trip to urgent care to get his reef cut gone wrong handled, but for me it took 5 different physicians to sort out what was happening. The inability to sleep never feels good, but while running all over Los Angeles desperately trying to find someone (ANYONE!) to help me figure out my situation, I also started experiencing sound sensitivity so great that the sound of cars driving by my house brought me to tears...Vitamix at my local juicery? AHH.Turn.That.sh*tOFF! My saving grace was an ENT who started managing my infection (microscopically delivering antibiotics as needed) on a weekly basis. Step one, "No water in your ear." I had to wear cotton balls in my ear while showering and mid-day dips into the ocean to keep me sane were certainly out of the question. Hot, sweaty, mind-clearing yoga sessions were also out due to the sauna-like environment and sweat combo creating the possibility of more moisture building in my ear. So what does an utterly sleep-deprived, defeated ocean-lovin' yogi do? Well, you become obsessed with researching the microbiome (the collection of organisms that live throughout our body in our skin, gut, vagina, urinary tract, nose, etc). Fun fact: your body contains more bacteria, fungi, and micro-organisms than it does human cells.
To give you some background on the microbiome, the NIH explains, "Microbes inhabit just about every part of the human body, living on the skin, in the gut, and up the nose. Sometimes they cause sickness, but most of the time, microorganisms live in harmony with their human hosts, providing vital functions essential for human survival. A consortium of researchers organized by the National Institutes of Health have mapped the normal microbial makeup of healthy humans, producing numerous insights and even a few surprises.
Researchers found, for example, that nearly everyone routinely carries pathogens, microorganisms known to cause illnesses. In healthy individuals, however, pathogens cause no disease; they simply coexist with their host and the rest of the human microbiome, the collection of all microorganisms living in the human body. Researchers must now figure out why some pathogens turn deadly and under what conditions they cause disease."
I often explore ancient medicine because I love immersing myself in the wisdom of our ancestors (often dismissed or forgotten) and comparing it against modern medicine's "latests discoveries." While searching for the connection between Ayurvedic knowledge and the microbiome, I stumbled upon Anna of Liberated Yoga's take on it and couldn't agree more. "The universe within, science now calls the 'microbiome.' As science struggles to make sense of these new findings, allow me to go on a limb here and say that this information has been available to humanity for the past several thousand years- Ayurveda has been telling us that our gut is influenced by "humours" or "doshas" inside (and outside) our bodies and these can be the sources of imbalance and disease. I believe that Ayurveda is talking about the same thing, only using a different language. Think of it this way: you have an environment inside you, populated by bacteria of different species, in different numbers and therefore different proportions of one bacteria to another. Various types of microbes accumulate everywhere in and on the human body. Some perform specific useful functions, such as development and regulation of the immune system and others produce beneficial compounds that the body cannot produce on its own. Others produce toxins that poison us. Some are even capable of creating a certain mood or mental state in us! It all depends on the kind of environment you create for them....Ayurveda helps to explain that the environment inside us is fostered through the foods we eat and lifestyle choices we make. You create the conditions in your body, and based on those conditions you will have the types of residents that prefer them." Amen, sista.
In 2009, Ayurveda inspired me to start consciously connecting to the state of my digestive tract. If you love holistic health and you start drinkin' enough of the organic, vegan, gluten-free kool-aid, it won't take long before you stumble upon blog post after blog post discussing how the digestive tract benefits from probiotics (beneficial live bacteria and yeast). Experimenting with probiotics myself, I started taking this good-gut-loving bacteria in supplementation form, which eventually led me to start incorporating a variety of fermented foods into my diet- both good steps to take when trying to re-establish the beneficial bacteria in your gut.
I now bring you into the spring of 2015...I'm 4 physicians deep into my ear infection dilemma and the last ENT I saw prescribed daily antibiotics for one month. This doesn't sit well with me. Have you seen VICE's Life in a Post-Antibiotic World on HBO? It's an episode worth watching, you can catch the debreifing here...
Now, I am onto meditating on who it is I needed to reach out to to help with my ear. I'm drawn to yelp the ENTs in my area and intuitively choose someone. I go with an ENT named Amanda simply because she has the same name as me. One week later I arrive at her office and I'm relieved that my intuition was spot on because she's been the most attentive and helpful person regarding my ear that I've met in weeks (did I mention I'm now onto the 5th MD for this situation?). As we talked, she assured me that she would only give me antibiotics on a weekly, as needed basis- and this would likely only take 2-3 applications versus 30. I ask her what she thinks about the Ayurvedic penetrative medicine for ears known as Karna Purana (the administration of medicated oil in the ears). She hasn't heard of it, but given that I have an active infection she advises against it. Later that night, although I trust I am in better hands, I can't help but notice that it's 2 am, I can't sleep and my ear is pulsating. Further disrupting my senses with the glow of my phone, I am desperately searching for other ways I can support my body while on an antibiotic. "Google..is that you?...Outside of eating fermented foods, in what other ways can I safely introduce more bacteria into my life?" Sounds strange, but after Fiji, it became very clear to me that a lot of what we do in our very sterile world kills off a lot of the diverse bacteria on our skin and bodies that actually help us stay healthy. It's late, so I decide to make peace with the fact I have an ear infection and due to the fact that I am a month in (and it hasn't resolved) I also make peace with the need to take antibiotics. As I drift to sleep I decide that beyond the microcosm of my ear I am determined to make the microbiome of my body better.
Ayurveda has taught me to have a deep reverence for the function of my skin, and thus I take care of it daily through an Abhyanga practice. I place so much importance on the state of the skin, that in my physical therapy practice, one of the first things I take inventory on is the subjective and objective qualities of my patient's skin. To me, it is no surprise that scientific discoveries are moving beyond the gut and giving some love to the microbiome of the skin (as well as other linings within the body).
In my search, some of the most discussed products thought to kill off the skin's healthy bacteria are: soap, deodorant, detergent, and chemical-filled hygiene and cosmetic products. Over the years, I have become aware of all of these things, but as I said, since Fiji, I've been a little more than determined to immerse myself in a personal project of becoming even more in tune with ways I can support the innate wisdom of the bacteria that lives on and beneath my skin. Where I saw a lot of room for improvement in cleaning up my self-care regime was in my soap and shampoo use. I was really motivated after reading this excerpt from an article entitled, "Shampoo and Soap Wreak Havoc on the Skin’s Microbiome"... "(The skin) needs replenishing because, just as oral antibiotics indiscriminately kill both good and bad bacteria inside the body, soap and shampoo carpet bomb bacteria outside the body."
I connected with IWR's other half, Jenn, and relayed all this information to her and we discussed at length where we both are in our "soap story." After several exchanges about how we would present this information, we finally decided to keep it real with our readers and candidly share exactly where we are on this journey. I'm certainly not the first to take on a No-Soap, No-Shampoo, Bacteria-Rich Hygiene Experiment, but I'm about 6 months in and definitely excited to share my insights on the upcoming blog post "Soap Story Part II." We realize not everyone is ready to ditch their soap tomorrow, so Jenn shares her story too. In Part III she reflects on the shifts she's made to reduce body odor and calm down her rosacea and the manageable steps she's taken in the last 6 months to make her current soap use a more eco-friendly experience. Stay tuned! And if Ayurvedic wisdom fascinates you as much as us, know it's not too late to join us on our upcoming Ayurveda, Alignment and Yoga Retreat this October!