Are We Too Clean?

Posted Fri, 04/23/2010 - 12:17pm by Fred Lee

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There is no question that allergies are on the rise in this country, and for that matter, around the world. Oddly enough, in industrialized nations, where you might intuitively think that wealth and access to medical technology would make the situation better, they are in fact worse. Conditions like hay fever, skin disorders (which include eczema and hives), and asthma are all on the rise. Because of this, a number of theories have been proffered in an effort to explain why.

One such theory has come to be known as the hygiene hypothesis, and it basically states that children who grow up under conditions that are too clean are predisposed to having more allergies later in life. The reason for this is because early exposure to dirt and certain bacteria help a person develop a healthier immune system. So while hygiene does protect us from harmful bacteria, it also reduce or eliminate our exposure to helpful ones, thereby reducing the diversity of our gut microflora. With this in mind, there may in fact be a possible relationship between excessive cleanliness at an early age and allergies later in life.

These health conditions are classified as autoimmune disorders, and result form our own immune systems going awry and attacking our bodies. While the reason this occurs is not completely understood, there are many who believe that it stems from the improper “education” of our bodies early in life. Exposure to bacteria and other foreign invaders acts to “teach” our immune systems how to react and function properly.

When we grow up in overly clean or sterile conditions, we do not benefit from this early exposure, and as a consequence, our bodies are not properly educated. This is especially prevalent today, where the concept of hygiene has become a national obsession. There are even some schools of thought that encourage the idea of consuming dirt and contracting certain parasites.

Make no mistake, proper hygiene as saved millions of lives, but like many things in life, when taken to extremes, might very well create their own set of problems. Along these lines, immune dysfunction may stem from excessive cleanliness that could lead to a myriad of chronic health disorders, especially allergies.

Numerous studies have demonstrated that allergies are on the rise, especially in the industrialized world. In certain areas, as much as half of the population suffers from some sort of allergy. Since 1980, the rate of allergies in Western countries has risen from 10% to 30%. This year, it has been estimated that 10% of children (1 in 10) will be asthmatic, along with an increased mortality rate from the condition. And it’s not just the frequency of these problems that concerns the experts, but he severity of the conditions, which include such disorders as diabetes, Crohn’s disease, and multiple sclerosis, all of which can significantly affect a person’s quality of life, and in certain instances, even be life threatening.

This is in contrast to developing countries (where the obsession with cleanliness might not be as prevalent) where rates of allergies are so low that they are considered a rarity.

In the end, the reasons for the rise in immune disorders, including allergies, are not clear. The human body is a complex system, and the changing world exposes us to many different experiences that may play a role. Nonetheless, it is interesting to consider the irony in how the extreme lengths that we go to keep our surroundings clean may actually come back to haunt us.

For more information about allergies, talk to your doctor and visit the website for the National Library of Medicine. To learn more about the hygiene hypothesis, visit the website for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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