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Monday, October 12, 2015

Skin Bacteria, Mood Disorders, and Daily Showers

Newsflash: You don't have to take a shower every day. See the guy in the photo? He hasn't taken a shower in 12 years. And he wants to liberate you from the routine, too.

David Whitlock of AOBiome
Meet David Whitlock, the brains behind AOBiome's Mother Dirt line of skin-probiotic products.

At first, it sounds crazy: Stop showering? For years at a time? (And not stink? How?) And your mood will improve?

Wait. What?

I was reading the interview with Whitlock at Motherboard, where he talks about restoring the skin's microbiome (by adding back the ammonia-consuming bacteria you wash off in the shower), and the one statement that jumped out at me was:

"The greatest and most amazing change is that I’m always in a good mood now."

Turns out, there's a scientifically plausible explanation for this possibility (which I'll get to in about two seconds), but it also accords well with anecdotal data, because—as it turns out—I'm married to someone who takes few showers. My wife has schizoaffective disorder (a form of schizophrenia), and like most people with schizophrenia, she often goes many days between baths. (Typically, she'll shower once a week, although over Christmas holiday 2014, she went three weeks.) It never occurred to me that not showering might be a form of self-medication—until I read the Whitlock interview.

Whitlock hasn't showered in  12 years, and the main thing he's noticed is an improvement in mood.

How can that be? Can it be?

Nitrosomonas has a characteristic lamellar membrane
structure, with specialized membranes that oxidize ammonia
and pump nitrites (and nitric oxide) away from the cytoplasm.
Well, it so happens that the products sold by Whitlock's company contain ammonia-oxiding bacteria (AOB, hence "AOBiome"), which occur naturally in soil and seawater. We're talking here, specifically, about Nitrosomonas, an important component of the nitrogen cycle (and the kind of organism that could well occur on Mars, if life is ever found on Mars). Nitrosomonas is a brilliantly specialized organism, able to subsist entirely on CO2 and ammonia. (Think about that.) It burns ammonia for fuel, producing nitrites and NO (nitric oxide) as waste products.

Nitric oxide is an extremely interesting molecule. It's a gas at room temperature; soluble in oil as well as water; extremely corrosive; penetrates cell membranes with ease; and is probably the most widely distributed free radical in the human body. In addition to its well known role as a vasodilator, nitric oxide also serves as a neurotransmitter. Unlike most other neurotransmitters that transmit information only from a presynaptic to a postsynaptic neuron, the small, uncharged, and fat-soluble nitric oxide molecule can diffuse widely and readily into cells.

David Whitlock's contention is that by washing "good bacteria" off our skin every day, we not only promote a rapid reaccumulation of stinky ammonia on our skin, we also deprive ourselves of a small (but important) amount of nitric oxide, which would otherwise come from the activities of bacteria like Nitrosomonas, which convert ammonia to nitric oxide.

I haven't yet had an opportunity to try AOBiome's Mother Dirt products (if you've used them, I'd certainly like to hear your experience; tweet me), but the AOBiome story, it seems to me, is intriguing, and the company's web site is (IMHO) a textbook example of how to do a product web site the right way, with plenty of drill-down points for discovering more information, tons of interesting testimonials, and a minimum of hard sell.

What I'd like to see from AOBiome, at this point, is more science: Data on nitric oxide production and bioavailability, data on skin microbiome diversity, skin pH data, skin ammonia data, things of that nature. The Mother Dirt story is compelling, as is; a little more science can only take it to the next level.

Skin care products that improve mood? Skin probiotics that help conserve water? Sounds like a growth industry to me. Sign me up.

A big thank-you to all the great people who retweeted me yesterday: 

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