Written by Aaron Stuber
Before I begin, I should clarify that I do, in fact, get in a hot shower most days of the week. It’s what I do in that time that really makes the difference. I haven’t touched a bar of soap for months and I honestly can’t remember the last time I washed my hair. Gross, right? You might be thinking, wow, Aaron is merely a dab of patchouli oil away from moving to a commune in the desert, however, I can assure you my motives have nothing to do with counter-culture and everything to do with science.
So what would compel someone like me to turn my back on good hygiene at the obvious risk of smelling like a muskox? The short answer is bacteria. Actually, microbes to be more accurate. The human body is covered, both inside and out, with a diverse ecosystem of bacteria, fungi, viruses, protozoa and helminths. In fact, the hundred trillion microbes that take residence on and in your body and their DNA, outnumber your other human cells by 10 to 1. There are more than a billion bacteria in a single drop of fluid from your colon alone. We are, quite literally, a walking lump of germs.
I’ve been following research on the human microbiome, a term used to describe all of the organisms living in and on us, for a few years now and as it turns out, these critters are much more than passive occupants of the human vessel. They are responsible for a number of physiological processes and share a deeply symbiotic relationship with us. For example, our gut bacteria help us digest food, maintain the integrity of our gut lining, crowd out harmful pathogens, train our immune cells (of which 70% reside in the intestines) to distinguish between friend and foe, convert sugars into short-chain fatty acids and synthesize many of the enzymes, vitamins and hormones that we can’t make on our own, among many other functions. Perhaps more strangely, the species of microbe that inhabit our bodies influence our likelihood of being obese, our risk of developing cancer and diabetes, and even play a role in our brain chemistry and mental health, effecting our moods, food cravings, emotions and personalities.
This may sound something akin to a bad science-fiction novel, however, I can assure you it is anything but empirical and we have only begun to understand the myriad ways our microbial ecology influences our health. I recently read a transformational book called The Microbiome Solution by Dr. Robynne Chutkan, an Integrative Gastroenterologist who has been at the forefront of the science on this topic and its clinical application for decades. She uses a term she calls, “rewilding” to describe the pursuit of reestablishing the health, diversity and robustness of our microbiome in order to prevent and sometimes treat many of the chronic diseases that plague the West.
It was this book that tipped the scales and got me thinking seriously about the daily rituals that can dramatically alter (in a bad way) this delicate microbial balance. This brings me back to the shower. While it may seem normal, necessary and even health promoting to clean every inch of your body with soap (not to mention chlorinated tap water which is uniquely bacteriocidal), it is not, from an evolutionary and historical perspective, a normal thing to do and may have consequences we can’t fully appreciate yet. We are dirty, smelly creatures and I think it stands to reason that if the diversity and population size of the microbes on our skin are important, as they have been demonstrated to be, we should not make a daily practice of laying them to waste with agents of chemical warfare and industrial surfactants.
Now, I understand that showering is only a small piece of the puzzle and that the majority of our microbiome resides within our bodies. Reading the book, I was delighted to discover that everything else I’ve been doing and recommending to my patients, including exercising regularly (sweating seems to be particularly important), eating a high fiber, plant-based diet, avoiding antibiotics unless absolutely necessary, having pets, playing outside, taking a powerful probiotic supplement and avoiding toxic chemicals in the home is exactly what is required to maintain optimal health of your microbes and your body.
You are probably thinking, this all sounds great on paper, but is it worth smelling like a sailor to achieve better health? As it turns out, what I claimed would surely result from this little experiment turned out to be unfounded. I started by slowly fazing out the soap, first every other day, then every few days, then once a week, then none. I payed close attention to my odor throughout the day; no change. I consulted with my wife; no change. Friends? Nope, you smell fine. What I quickly discovered was that washing with soap only buys you a few hours of odor free existence in the morning and strips you of the essential oils that keep your skin moisturized. Bypassing the soap just keeps you at a steady state of normal body odor throughout the day. Over time, as my skin and the bacteria that populates it has adjusted, I actually smell less each day. And I don’t feel gross or oily, even with a once a day, full body lathering of raw coconut oil. Rinsing in hot water is plenty in my experience.
However, should you be anticipating an intimate encounter, I would definitely get some suds in those crevices but that is the only scenario in which I would recommend it. Happy rewilding!