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Our Immune System in an over-sanitized world, is it making us sick?

Twenty-five years ago Dr. David first proposed the “Hygiene Hypothesis” which claimed the higher incidence of immune disorders like allergies and asthma could be caused in part to the hyper-clean, over-sanitized world many of us inhabit, leaving scientist to ask the question is our over-sanitized world making our immune system weak?

The theory claimed that we as a species needed a steady stream of biological “tourists” for our health and that digging in dirt, remember that activity that many of us who were born before the 1980s did, actually keeps us healthy. This is because for every square inch of soil there are billions of other creatures who we used to come in contact with through work and play. Some of these organisms were important to us, think probiotics, while others were used to help our bodies develop its necessary “immunological arsenal.”

As we entered the 20th century, many things changed for the human race. Babies were born in sterilized hospitals, our tap water was cleaned and chlorinated, our food was injected with hormones and pasteurized and suddenly our immune system is no longer encountering some early organisms it needs to help us build an effective immune system.

In a recent magazine article called “Tune up your immune system in the garden” by Stacie Boschma, she posits the hypothesis “that we should be less concerned about whether the world lives in environments that are too clean, but rather whether or not we live in environments where we have isolated ourselves from the microbial communities and biological processes that created us in the first place.”

What does new research say about our immune system?

New research indicates that individuals may get benefits from exposure to microorganisms in the soil. In fact, every time you garden or your child plays outside they are helping their immune system get stronger.

Boschma highlights in her article one common, non-pathogenic soil bacterium called Mycobacterium vaccae. She notes M. vaccae is ingested through breathing when an individual is outside. Recently researchers have found that “cancer patients who are exposed to M. vaccae, report improved mood, energy and vitality.” Additionally, in mice experiments M. vaccae has been shown to improve learning and reduce stress and anxiety by encouraging the brain to produce more serotonin. Do you remember what Serotonin does? It is a mood elevating body naturally produced in the body which plays a role in regulating appetite, sleep and other basic functions.

Do I stop washing my hands for my immune system?

No one is suggesting that we completely discard proven hygienic practices, but what research could be saying is that certain organisms and environmental factors provide the immune system with a chance to develop some additional protection which may be needed to modulate the body’s inflammatory response.

Through the years many of us have wondered why we have seen such a high spike in allergies and asthma in our children. This theory may offer us insight into what is causing this trend and reaffirm what we already knew- it’s time to turn off the Xbox and send your kids outside to play in the dirt. They may or may not make a few mud pies but they could avoid an allergy attack
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