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A Little Dirt Won’t Hurt!

A little dirt never hurt anyone….

Danish researchers have found that getting dirty can pay off. They studied 411 children over a period of six years and found that the more exposure they had to a variety of bacteria the less risk they had of developing allergies.

“In our study of over 400 children we observed a direct link between the number of different bacteria in their rectums and the risk of development of allergic disease later in life,” says Professor Hans Bisgaard, consultant at Gentofte Hospital, head of the Copenhagen Prospective Studies on Asthma in Childhood, and professor of children’s diseases at the Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Copenhagen. He explains that it is important for children to be exposed to as much different bacteria as possible in the first few months of life while the immune system is “developing and learning”. He explains that our “immune defenses are primed by encountering the bacterial cultures surrounding us” and that it is possible this could help prevent a variety of disease such as diabetes and obesity.

In Western society we are obsessed with cleanliness and exposure to germs. There is good reason for this as some organisms can be extremely harmful to our health and at times deadly. However, is it possible we have taken our precautions too far? Allergic diseases such as eczema, asthma and hay fever have been rising steadily since the industrial revolution, are now far more prominent in developed nations and numbers continue to rise. Marc McMorris, MD, a pediatric allergist at the University of Michigan Health System, explains that “we’ve developed a cleanlier lifestyle, and our bodies no longer need to fight germs as much as they did in the past. As a result, the immune system has shifted away from fighting infection to developing more allergic tendencies”.

Thanks to lifesaving antibiotics and vaccines the immune system is no longer burdened with fighting off life-threatening diseases such as polio, measles and common bacterial infections. Our families are also smaller, reducing exposure to germs. Families with three or more children have been found to have fewer allergies because more children mean more germs and greater exposure to bacteria and viruses. “The natural immune system does not have as much to do as it did 50 years ago because we’ve increased our efforts to protect our children from dirt and germs,” says McMorris.

This lack of “training” for our immune system has also been linked to a higher incidence of autoimmune disease such as multiple sclerosis (MS), type I diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), celiac disease and rheumatoid arthritis. Research is still lacking but what there is of it certainly substantiates further inquiry into this topic. In the meantime, it certainly puts into question our fanatic use of antiseptic cleaning products and hand wipes that are used in many household products and carried around in diaper bags. Not all bacteria is bad, and in fact, more and more studies are demonstrating that bacteria and even parasites are necessary for balanced and regulated immune system development. Perhaps it is time to relax, put away our collection of antibacterial soaps and let our kids play in the dirt and catch the odd cold.

References:
Bisgaard H, Li N, Bonnelykke K, Chawes BL, Skov T, Paludan-Müller G, Stokholm J, Smith B, Krogfelt KA. Reduced diversity of the intestinal microbiota during infancy is associated with increased risk of allergic disease at school age. J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2011 Sep;128(3):646-52.e1-5. Epub 2011 Jul 22.

Bufford JD, Gern JE. The hygiene hypothesis revisited. Immunol Allergy Clin North Am. 2005 May;25(2):247-62, v-vi.

Dirt Prevents Allergy, Danish Research Suggests. ScienceDaily. Nov. 2, 2011.

Grammatikos, AP. The genetic and environmental basis of atopic diseases. Annals of Medicine. 2008. 40 (7): 482–95.

The Hygiene Hypothesis: Are Cleanlier Lifestyles Causing More Allergies For Kids? Science Daily. Sept 5, 2007.

Liu AH, Murphy JR. Hygiene hypothesis: Fact or fiction? J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2003;111(3):471-478.

Okada H, Kuhn C, Feillet H, Bach JF. The ‘hygiene hypothesis’ for autoimmune and allergic diseases: an update. INSERM U1013, Necker-Enfants Malades Hospital, Paris, France.

Zhang, Allan. The Growing Problem of Cleanliness. Triple Helix Online. June 1,2011

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