We don’t often think of ourselves as home to millions of microorganisms, but we are. As recent science is unveiling, each person has his or her own unique microbiome, or ecological community of co-existing microorganisms. Changes to our microbiomes - like those experienced because of pet loss - can impact our health, our well-being, and our overall moods.
I know for me that, on the whole, my health declined becuase of the loss of Tia and Spartacus. Clawing my way back to a greater sense of wellbeing has been a long journey. One of my sisters is a GP and she's done a lot of thinking about wellness - some of which has lead her to research on the need for us to think about our microbiomes. This becomes doubly important when our systems experience shock - especially if it means the loss of a canine companion.
When we live in close proximity to other living beings - human or animal - for long periods of time, our microbiomes tends to start to mirror one another becuase we share microorganisms with one another. Sounds gross, but it's true. As we kiss and nuzzle and snuggle - and even clean up after - those we love, we pick up the critters that are growing in their guts and transfer them to our own. This is especially true of our animal companions with whom we often share many slobbery licks and nose touches. And towards the ends of their lives, our animal friends may need extra hands-on TLC that puts us in even closer proximity to their unique microbiomes.
If there’s a change in that relationship, such as after the death of a pet, the loss is felt physically in part because of this change to our microbiomes. Our bodies had become used to this other being's microorganism community. The loss of the influenence in our lives can impact our grief, our behaviours, and our health following loss. It’s important to have a coping strategy so that we’re able to navigate this physical change as well.
Why Dog Germs are Good for Us
Many of us grew up with the “Peanuts” cartoons in which the character Lucy would become panicked when kissed by Charlie Brown’s beloved beagle Snoopy. Her cries - “Ugh, I’ve been kissed by a dog! I have dog germs!! Get some disinfectant, get some iodine!!!” - defined for many how we should feel if a pooch licked us. If the cartoon wasn’t enough to reinforce this message, our mothers’ pleas not to let the dog lick us were enough for us to believe that we might catch some dreadful disease from our canine pals.
While most people aren’t excited about getting a dog for the germs, there as some benefits on that end to be recognized. In her new book, The Microbiome Solution, Dr. Robynne Chutka, a leading gastroenterologist, suggests that maybe mom was wrong about dogs. In fact, Dr. Chutka has gone so far as to suggest that we’re healthier when we live with animals, dogs in particular, as they share some of the same microbes as we do. According to her theory, because dogs tend to get into more bacteria-rich environments, such as rolling and digging in the dirt, they can pass on to humans the microbes that we tend to eliminate through fastidious cleaning. This can be a good thing for our systems as we need some healthy bacteria, especially in our guts.
In fact, Chutka's is not the only research that connects having a dog with a healthier system thanks to “good bacteria.” Some studies are trying to establish that living with a dog can be akin to having a probiotic in the house. The University of California, San Diego, has been studying this phenomenon. Leading this research is Rob Knight who is known around the world as a human microbiome expert. This study seeks to find answers on human, animal, and environmental health collectively by examining our shared microbes. He has suggested that children who live in a home with a dog tend to have lower incidences of asthma or allergies.
This information comes at a time in which our society is emerging from a period of overuse of antibacterial soaps and solutions as well as overprescribed antibiotics, all of which are making us more susceptible to super-bugs. In fact, in today’s society, despite our obsession with being clean, there are more cases of eczema, stomach troubles, asthma, allergies, and a host of illnesses.
The upshot: Despite being grossed out by a wet dog kiss, Lucy might very well have benefited from Snoopy’s affection.
When Our Pet Dies, Our Microbiome Suffers, Too
So you can perhaps see how having a dog in your life may actually benefit your health. What happens, then, when you lose your canine companion? Your body has become accustomed to certain routines. It has also become used to certain microbes. When that changes, it can wreak havoc on your system. Not only are you mentally trying to cope with pet grief, but your gut is trying to accept this change as well.
Since rushing out to adopt a new pet presents its own share of emotional problems while processing your grief, it may be better to find other ways in to allow your body's natural flora to increase until you’re mentally ready for a new animal companion. Here some tips on how to keep microbiomes happy:
Forgo the Antibiotics Unless Absolutely Necessary
Too many antibiotics create a resistance in our systems and stop being affective over time. They can also really mess with our beneficial bacterial community members. So take a beat if your doctor recommends antiobiotics. Certainly we’re not recommending that you dismiss your doctor’s advice, especially if you or your family members have a bacterial infection. However, ask your doctor if it’s immediately necessary to treat a symptom with an antibiotic or if he or she is uncertain as to whether the infection is bacterial. For example, unless you test positive for strep (for which antibiotics are a must), most throat infections are caused by viruses, which are not resolved with antibiotics.
Limit Hand Sanitizer and Antibacterial Soap Use
Like antibiotics, using solutions to keep germs away creates a resistance so that they’re less effective when we do encounter bad bacteria. As long as your household and/or community aren't fending off a bad spate of infection, try to wash more with water and mild soap instead. Give your good bacteria a chance to fend of the nasties and you'll strengthen your microbiome in the process.
Get Your Hands Dirty in the Garden
Don’t be afraid to dig into the dirt - where you'll encounter all kinds of new bacteria - to plant vegetables and flowers. All that sweat and dirt is actually good for our systems, as is fresh air. The vegetables we grow at home are less likely to be exposed to pesticides or other chemicals. Plus, there’s something satisfying about picking veggies or fruits from our own gardens.
Grow to Love Fibrous Foods
Especially during grief, we tend to seek comfort foods like simple carbohydrates, overly-processed foods, and sugar-laden items. But these types of foods are often devoid of the kinds of good bacteria that we need. Nor do they foster an inner enviroment that supports a healthy microbiome. What our guts and our microbiomes crave are healthier complex carbohydrates and filling roughage. Here are some choices that will feed microbes and help you feel better overall:
- Beans, legumes, and lentils: Great in soups, sides, or even main course meals.
- Leeks and onions: Add to recipes for flavor and crunch
- Oats and Whole Grains: From morning cereals, to breads and muffins, to side dishes, there are multiple opportunities to incorporate these complex carbs into your diet. Not a fan of oatmeal or bran muffins? Try quinoa or barley as a side instead of pasta or rice.
- Celery: Nearly zero calories, mostly water, but lots of crunch. Add to salads, eat as crudite with hummus or healthy dip, or even fill with sugar-free nut butter for a satisfy snack.
- Asparagus: Skip the heavy Hollandaise sauce and try roasting this veggie. Coat with olive oil, balsamic vinegar and sprinkle with garlic powder. It’s simple, yet delish.
- Artichokes, sunchokes, or Jerusalem artichokes: Find a recipe to prepare these tasty treats.
Try these steps to make your inner self as friendly to the good and protective bacteria that you need. Then, when your grief allows, you can consider adopting a new puppy and bringing in a feast of new microbes into your lives.