“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.