Is the thought of catching a cold or the flu enough to make you run for a bottle of hand sanitizer? If you have kids, you may take great pains to protect them against exposure to viruses and bacteria in hopes of keeping them free of illness – but are you actually putting your kids at an unhealthy disadvantage later in life?
No one likes the idea of touching a germy surface or being exposed to a sick person, but exposure to viruses and bacteria early in life, during childhood, may actually benefit a child’s immune system. The hygiene hypothesis, the idea that exposure to microorganisms early in life aids in healthy immune function, is gaining acceptance. By being exposed to a variety of parasites, bacteria and viruses early in life, a child’s immune system “learns” what to react to and what not to. Early childhood essentially serves as a training period for a child’s immune system. Yes, immune cells have to “learn” too.
The Hygiene Hypothesis…
Without the ability to differentiate between threatening viruses and bacteria and harmless things in the environment, a poorly educated system can “overreact” and respond inappropriately to innocuous substances, leading to an increased risk of allergies and asthma. Some scientists are extending the hygiene hypothesis further, saying that too much cleanliness during childhood predisposes to autoimmune problems later in life. Autoimmune diseases where the immune system reacts against and damages normal tissues or “self” are growing in frequency in western countries.
The hygiene hypothesis is supported by animal studies and also by the fact that autoimmune disease is more common in areas of the world where the standard of living is high and cleanliness is a priority. A study in mice showed that when you raise young mice in a sterile environment free of germs, immune function is weaker later in life. Plus, these overly clean mice have higher rates of inflammation where their immune system reacts against normal tissue. Without exposure to bacteria and viruses in the environment, many of which aren’t harmful, the immune systems of these mice never reach their true potential or behave in an entirely healthy manner.
In modern society, most people scrub their hands and houses clean with anti-bacterial cleaners, rarely get outside to touch the earth and take antibiotics at the first sign of infection. In other words, kids are growing up in a more sterile environment than kids did a century ago. Could this explain the rise in allergies, asthma, and, possibly, autoimmune disease? Some experts think so.
If you’re the parent or grandparent of a young child, what’s the take-home message? Its okay to let young children get their hands and feet dirty and it might even be beneficial to their immune system. Just as babies and young kids need to be exposed to lots of new experiences to get educated, so does what will become their immune system.
The Bottom Line
Unfortunately, if you’re no longer a child, your immune system is already formed. Still, that doesn’t mean you can’t support healthy immune function with a nutritious diet and healthy lifestyle habits along with supplements to give your already-trained immune system a little reinforcement. You depend on your immune system for so much – protection against viral and bacterial illnesses and even against cancer – show your immune support team a little love by taking care of it.
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-By Alternative Health Concepts
Clin Exp Immunol. 2010 Apr; 160(1): 1-9.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “Asthma: The Hygiene Hypothesis”