Revenge of the Microbiome


If given the chance, the bugs that live inside us are mostly helpful. Like any other tenant, they know (on some level) that it is not in their best interest to burn down the house. But they do have their priorities.

If we send too much of the wrong stuff down the chute they do not greet its arrival with gratitude. For instance, the microbiota are much better off without alcohol.

If we kill them with antibiotics, the result can be ugly. After an extinction-level event, like a course of prescribed antibiotics, we had best go out and get bugs that don’t mind paying a little rent to occupy us. Probiotic supplements are said to replace the devastated populations, thus keeping the pathogenic organisms at bay. Prebiotics are said to supply the preferred raw materials the bugs need to do their magic.

Trouble lurks

Even when we are conscious, avoiding needless damage to the microbiome is not easy. A fresh news item comes from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention which, like so many other health-related governmental entities, faces significant budget cuts. They keep track of the reports from poison centers. Listen to this:

Researchers calculated that just over 70,000 accidental exposures to hand sanitizers among kids younger than 12 had occurred from 2011 to 2014. The vast majority of these involved youngsters under the age of five who ingested hand sanitizer.

Most of the germ-killer brands are alcohol-based, in which case the formula has to be at least 60% alcohol or it’s useless. The alternative chief ingredient is triclosan, an anti-fungal and anti-bacterial substance also found in pesticides:

[…] the compound has been widely touted as an agent that causes the formation of super bugs or antibiotic resistant bacteria. Triclosan […] is capable of quickly being absorbed into the skin and entering the blood stream. Once there, it is known to cause various side effects like cancer, allergies, hormonal and neurological ill effects and muscle weakness.

So, imagine what it does to the friendly gut bugs that are just trying to co-exist with us. Even when kids just use it properly — on their hands — it has been proven that “a child’s immunity is seriously affected.”

The hand sanitizer might contain benzalkonium chloride, whose “main function is to dissolve the outer covering of the bacterial cells.” That goes for dangerous invading bacteria, and also for our beneficial gut flora. The smell of the cleaning compound will be provided by phthalates, or “fakegrances,” which can do plenty of harm when applied topically, and even more if ingested. Some authorities consider phthalates the most potentially dangerous ingredient found in household and beauty potions.

According to the CDC report on hand sanitizer as beverage, “only a few get seriously hurt.” Vomiting is the second most popular reaction, and a small percentage of kids who drink the stuff suffer from abdominal pain.

But what about the microbiome? For how many of these poisoned kids were baseline counts of their microbial populations on record, for a before-and-after comparison? How many are followed up half a year later to see if their bodily functions have changed in some unaccountable way?

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Kids Apparently Love To Drink Hand Sanitizer,”, 03/03/17
Source: “8 reasons you will stop using hand sanitisers regularly,”, 04/27/15
Photo via Visualhunt

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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