Allergies are increasing at an alarming rate. In the last 30 years, the number of people suffering from allergies in developed countries has grown from 10 percent to 30 percent. Allergies have become widespread in Western populations, where hay fever, eczema, hives and asthma are all more and more prevalent. Currently, one out of 10 children is asthmatic. Asthma rates in children under the age of five have risen more than 160 percent from 1980-1994 and the mortality rate resulting from this affliction increased 28 percent between those same years.
The reason? According to Dr. Guy Delespesse, a professor at the Université de Montréal Faculty of Medicine, it all boils down to excessive cleanliness. Allergies can be caused by genetics, air quality, processed foods, stress, tobacco use, etc. Yet our limited exposure to bacteria concerns Dr. Delespesse, who is also director of the Laboratory for Allergy Research at the Centre hospitalier de l’Université de Montréal.
“There is an inverse relationship between the level of hygiene and the incidence of allergies and autoimmune diseases,” says Dr. Delespesse. “The more sterile the environment a child lives in, the higher the risk he or she will develop allergies or an immune problem in their lifetime.” Wow. In our efforts to battle the germs to save ourselves from the filth and squalor that has plagued humankind, have we gone too far?
“Regions in which the sanitary conditions have remained stable have also maintained a constant level of allergies and inflammatory diseases. It’s not just the prevalence but the gravity of the cases,” says Dr. Delespesse. “Allergies and other autoimmune diseases such as Type 1 diabetes and multiple sclerosis are the result of our immune system turning against us.”
Why does this happen? It’s what researchers call the “hygiene hypothesis,” in which the millions of bacteria and viruses that enter the body along with ‘dirt’ spur the development of a healthy immune system–remove that and it throws our immune systems seriously out of whack. “The bacteria in our digestive system are essential to digestion and also serve to educate our immune system. They teach it how to react to strange substances. This remains a key in the development of a child’s immune system,” says Dr. Delespesse.
Although hygiene does reduce our exposure to harmful bacteria it also limits our exposure to beneficial microorganisms. As a result, the bacterial flora of our digestive system isn’t as rich and diversified as it used to be. Mary Ruebush, a microbiology and immunology instructor, and author of the book, “Why Dirt Is Good” (Kaplan), says that when kids put things in their mouths, for example, “Not only does it allow for “practice” of immune responses, which will be necessary for protection, but it also plays a critical role in teaching the immature immune response what is best ignored.” She deplores the current fetish for the hundreds of antibacterial products that convey a false sense of security and may actually foster the development of antibiotic-resistant, disease-causing bacteria.
Dr. Delespesse recommends probiotics to enrich our intestinal flora. Probiotics are intestinal bacteria that have a beneficial impact on health. They’ve been used for decades to make yogurt. Probiotics have a proven effect on treating diarrhea, and studies are increasingly concluding similar benefits for the immune system and allergies.