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Is good hygiene causing food allergies?

In this day and age, especially in the modern world, a commitment to personal hygiene is pretty much a social necessity. While even kings and queens back in medieval times may have bathed only once a month or so, these days you are likely to encounter raised eyebrows and wrinkled noses if you fail to shower at least once every few days.

Personally, I’m a big fan of hygiene. Before modern standards of sanitation became widespread, all sorts of diseases like typhoid and the Black Plague spread easily due to poor hygiene.

Recently, a theory known commonly as the hygiene hypothesis suggests that our commitment to sanitation and cleanliness may have resulted in unintended consequences. Food allergies, environmental allergies, and asthma are all on the rise in the modern world. Some allergists suspect that our habit of cleanliness may be responsible. In centuries past, constant exposure to dirt, bacteria, and heaps of other microorganisms meant our immune systems were lean, mean fightin’ machines. Today, our homes are airtight; our bathrooms are stocked with antibacterial soaps, and our kids are regularly vaccinated against the worst scourges of history. Families are usually smaller, meaning there is much less sharing of germs. All in all, this means our once active immune systems are frequently sitting around twiddling their thumbs and not getting a good workout.

Two related theories connect this change to the allergy epidemic. The first suggests that the immune system has learned to switch tactics. Given relatively little to do, the human Healthy Body has rededicated itself to fighting other foreign invaders. The other idea is that our immune systems are simply not getting enough practice with identifying unfamiliar substances, and respond aggressively to anything they identify as foreign such as foods, dust, pollen, etc.

This hypothesis may partly explain why allergies are one of the few health problems that affect well educated and well-to-do families in equal or greater numbers than they do families of lower economic status who often have more limited education. Members of the upper middle class are some of the worst offenders when it comes to the eradication of dirt.

So, what are you and I supposed to do with this information? I’m certainly not going to avoid bathing, brushing my teeth or keeping my home and surroundings clean. However, perhaps spending time outdoors away from filtered air and letting our kids play in the mud can turn out to be a good thing. Letting our guard down just a little bit may actually help our immune defenses stay strong.

To that I say, yay dirt!


Until next time,

Peace, love and vitamin C!



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