Back to Health: A Little Bit of Dirt is Healthy
The purpose of the immune system is to allow us to live in harmony with our environment. In fact, most of the trillions of foreign cells present in our body exist peacefully, and in some cases even contribute to our health and well-being. In spite of this, chronic diseases such as allergies, asthma, and eczema, which were much less common several decades ago, have risen exponentially, especially in children, quadrupling during the last two decades.
Researchers suspect the increase is due to many aspects of modern living including the “hygiene hypothesis,” which blames being raised in increasingly sterile homes.
As society in general becomes more “sterile,” it is causing real problems for your immune system, which is becoming increasingly unable to differentiate between real threats and harmless things like pollen and dust-bunnies.
How many people do you know who carry a bottle of antibacterial hand sanitizer with them wherever they go? Meanwhile, you’re exposed to antibiotics, in your food and by prescription, while most of the food supply is pasteurized or otherwise treated to remove both good and bad bacteria.
Antibacterial products are designed to remove disease causing organisms from external surfaces before they can enter the body. But we’re learning that, in the case of a large group of these products, this is not a healthy approach to keeping disease at bay for a number of reasons. Most important, there’s growing evidence that certain antibacterial products may be contributing to the alarming problem of bacterial resistance that was initially linked to our improper or over use of antibiotics.
While everyone is busy killing all of those “germs,” they didn’t stop to think about what this would mean for the future generations. Children are now growing up without being exposed to the bacteria, viruses and parasites that have existed throughout the world. In some cases, this can be a good thing. But to children’s immune systems, which are not being exposed to bacteria and viruses like they were in the past, it results in an excessive immune response against routine things, like grass, resulting in allergies and autoimmune diseases.
The immune system has two different components: the cell-mediated immune system and the humoral immune system. The cell-mediated immune system involves white blood cells and specialized immune cells which basically “eat” antigens, or foreign particles in the body. This helps drive the antigens out of the body causing symptoms such as skin rashes and the discharge of mucous from the throat and lungs. The cell-mediated response is associated with the beneficial acute inflammatory illnesses, and represents the driving out of the infection.
The other aspect is called the humoral immune system. Antibodies, special defense proteins, are produced to recognize and neutralize the antigen. It is a constant humoral response that is associated with chronic allergic-type diseases.
In order to be healthy, one needs to keep a balance between the cell-mediated system and the humoral system, with the cell-mediated system predominating. The cell-mediated response is activated by the natural exposure to bacteria and viruses. Through repeated exposure to infectious organisms, various types of bacteria and spores found in dirt, dust, and animal dander, we develop many immune response patterns. It is the cell mediated response that protects us from future illness, and develops the type of immune response we commonly associate with life-long immunity. The cell-mediated system suppresses the activity of the humoral system.
If the cell-mediated system is not properly stimulated, it does not fully develop. This can lead to an abnormally high production of humoral system antibodies. A humoral system that is continually running will overdevelop, creating a hypersensitive environment. When infants are exposed to germs early, their immune systems are pushed to go in an “infection-fighting direction.” Without this push, the immune system’s shift to infection fighting is delayed, and it becomes more likely to overreact to allergens; dust, mold, and other environmental factors that most people can tolerate.
Early exposure to allergens and infections also prime our immune systems to resist them later on.
Many studies have provided very fascinating evidence that your body actually benefits from regular exposure to dirt. So when we are exposed to a little bit of bacteria, our immune system does what it’s supposed to: develop a tolerance to it. Here’s what has been found so far:
Individuals with the highest degree of personal hygiene, those who washed their faces and hands more than five times per day, cleaned before meals, and bathed more than two times each day, were the most likely to develop eczema and wheezing.
Those who grow up in extremely clean homes are more likely to develop asthma and hay fever than those who grow up on farms or in houses with a little bit of dirt.
Individuals who are raised with pets, or who have older siblings, are less likely to develop allergies, possibly because they are exposed to more bacteria.