Saturday, March 2, 2013

Hygiene vs. Health

Mrs Critter had a dental appointment, and I was in the lobby while she saw the dentist. There, I saw a magazine I'd never run across before — Living Without, described as "The magazine for people with allergies and food sensitivities." It was the August/September 2012 issue, and it had a really interesting article in it (on pages 44-47) called Fishing for a Cure which talked about an alternative treatment for a group of autoimmune disorders. These disorders include — depending on who you talk to — multiple sclerosis, asthma, autism, eosinophilic esophagitis (EoE), inflammatory bowel disorder, Crohn's disease, multiple food allergies, and other disorders.

The striking thing to me was not the specific alternative treatment (the Helminth treatment which is, in some cases, the only available treatment — a treatment that is not available in the United Statees). It was what the article said about how our modern lifestyle may have affected this class of disorders. The article notes that

The biome depletion theory says that, as a result of better hygiene — afforded by post-industrial advances, such as toilets and water treatment facilities — people in developed countries are no longer exposed to, and therefore no longer harbor, some of the microscopic bacteria with which humans have historically had a symbiotic relationship. As a result, people in developed countries are missing some of the key microbes that keep the immune system in balance.
We — I — had previously thought about the fact that there seemed to be a lot fewer folks with this kind of disorder in the past. I had attributed this to three things — (1) the lesser awareness of a youngster, (2) the likelihood that medical advances have allowed those with these disorders to live full lives who would have died of them rather young in previous generations, and (3) the fact that exposure to some of these things probably innoculated us against some of their effects (sort of like a smallpox vaccination).

It now appears, however, that there is another factor involved — that some of the things we now protect ourselves from were actually helpful to, and maybe even necessary for, our health and well-being. That is, the better hygiene we are all so proud of may have deprived our children of many of the symbiotic bacteria that have kept us healthier in the past, as well as removing the harmful bacteria that made us sick in the past.

In other words, we may have done some of this to ourselves by being so sterile. Which suggests my sons are healthier because they spent so much time playing in the back yard dirt when they were young.

It looks like we actually need some of the "pathogens" we have dealt with for many generations. That also means that, in a very real sense, dirt is our friend.

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