What is the Hygiene Hypothesis?
This is a concept that you have likely heard of before, but just couldn’t connotate a name with it. The Hygiene Hypothesis provides a possible explanation for why rates of allergies, asthma and other immune system malfunctions are so common among younger generations today. Also called the “biome depletion theory,” the hygiene hypothesis brings awareness that lack of exposure to infectious agents early in life makes you more susceptible to infection in the future.
Basically, the advanced sanitation systems that we have in first world countries could be causing allergies among newborns. In addition to that, the hygiene hypothesis may also explain why older adults are developing allergies later in life.
What drives the foundation of the hygiene hypothesis is the geographical analysis of allergies and immune system disorders. It seems that the majority of people who suffer from these autoimmune conditions are in modernized, wealthier and industrialized nations. What the places all have in common is that fact that they are very sanitized for the most part.
And that’s not really an understatement because everywhere we go (at least in the United States) we clean everything almost every day. Every store, restaurant, shopping mall, movie theatre employs someone in particular to do the intense cleaning. Sometimes several times per day, bathrooms and floors are cleaned especially.
But what exactly are we trying to accomplish by constantly cleaning everywhere? It’s not like we have done this as humans throughout our existence in nature.
Hygiene Standards are Shifting Baselines With Each Generation
A part of research that can always be appreciated is the part that involves asking older generations about their own experiences when they were younger. You can simply ask a living person how it was back then. Anybody’s grandparent could answer the question “how was life when they didn’t constantly clean everything like they do today?”
And anybody with a few decades under their belt will tell you that it was pretty much exactly how it is now, except nobody was obsessed with cleaning. It seemed that unless there was a mess, cleaning was not a huge issue. Perhaps back then, people cleaned and what we do now is sanitize.
Is sanitization really necessary though?
In the recent decades, wealthy and industrialized nations have developed advanced sanitation technology that has become very efficient at cleansing parasites, bacteria, viruses and other potentially pathogenic microorganisms. These advancements definitely helped to reduce the number of deadly illnesses that could be spread across our population.
The biggest concern is the quality and purity of our water supply. Throughout human history, civilization has struggled with the constant fear that the water contained some type of pathogenic organism that could be consumed unknowingly. This has happened numerous times through history and had wiped out many groups of people. Some ancient villages and tribes simply disappeared from existence, likely because their water supply was contaminated with something poisonous.
Appreciate Sanitation for Preventing a Deadly Infections, at Least
I guess we can appreciate that we aren’t dying because sanitation systems have developed to the point where we don’t really need to have water anxiety. If you think about it, we haven’t had a serious outbreak from our water supply in quite some time. If a water-borne illness had infected a large number of people, it would be considered a huge deal and it would be all over the news.
Sanitation also protects us from other humans who wish to do harm to us. I would bet that terrorists would go straight for the water supply, because that is what they have done throughout ancient history. That’s where everybody’s life source is contained, we need to drink water. An evil-doer could easily travel over to the source of the drinking water and put whatever he’d like in there.
But now, our systems are contained and constantly monitored for anything that could kill us. To me, that is a great sigh of relief. Because I’m not dead!
However, these safeguards to our life against pathogens and poisonous toxins may come with risks and drawbacks.
Read more here about why people have allergies in the first place.
Could the Hypothesis Suggest That We Are Too Clean?
Perhaps sanitation is like a double-edged sword because on one hand, we are safe from deadly diseases, but we are also not able to train our immune system for future attacks by itself. With an analysis of how exactly the immune system works, this could potentially be answered.
Unfortunately, immune system strength is not inherited from your parents through their genes. What your immunity does throughout your adolescence does not get implemented into your DNA. Therefore, a newborn baby must start fresh with an immune system just like itself: brand spanking new.
It’s just like your muscles, they need time and experience as well as stress to be able to develop properly. The immune system needs to be trained with time and challenges so that it knows how to deal with problems that are similar in the future.
This is the same concept that helps make vaccines successful in preventing disease in the future. Basically, you expose your body to a small amount of the pathogen so that you can get used to it if you come in contact with it again. But with the case of vaccines, the pathogen you are exposing yourself to is already dead. A common misconception is that vaccines contain a small amount of the living pathogen that has a small chance of creating a full-blown infection. This is not true at all, the cells are all dead.
Can We Prevent Allergies Through Careful Exposure of the Allergens?
We all expose ourselves to all types of pathogens and toxins with every single day that passes. Our immune system gets used to whatever it is faced with so that it can better deal with poisonous materials that it is most likely to face again.
Evidence of this can be seen with the type of food poisoning with Mexican water called “Montezuma’s revenge.” This condition explains how somebody non-native to Mexico comes to the country for vacation or visiting with another purpose and drinks the tap water there. Usually, the visitors are warned about not drinking the water, but if they do, they will likely get very sick with food poisoning. This is called Montezuma’s revenge and it’s a frequently talked about subject if you live in that area of the planet.
The reason that this happens to visitors is because of the presence of bacteria in the water that is unique to that country. Once babies are born in Mexico, they are exposed to small amounts of this pathogen in the water and through breastmilk. Exposed to the illness as a young child when the immune system is highly acute and ready for challenges, memory B cells are created about the bacteria that causes vomiting and diarrhea. And that’s why Mexican citizens don’t get sick from drinking the water there, because their immune system took notes about how to quickly kill and eliminate the pathogen. Again, this is just like how vaccines work.
Research Suggests that Presence of Infection Enhances Immunity
The human body’s immune system is a highly sophisticated system of defense mechanisms that work to protect the body from infections via pathogens. These internal regulations have evolved over millennia as a way to combat the evolution of deadly disease-causing organisms and parasites.
Our ancient ancestors in nature were constantly exposed to parasites, viruses and bacteria just like some third-world countries around the world still are. Something interesting to note is that both of these groups have something in common: rates of allergies are extremely low amongst those young and old.
Therefore, the body has evolved in a constant state of biological warfare and it needs to construct battle plans and learn the moves of its enemy. When parasitic infections decline due to advances in sterility, the sector of the immune system that used to be very active in legitimate fights for health now finds itself no longer occupied in a clean environment. Perhaps it then becomes preoccupied with a less harmless substance to maintain balance like it has always been expected to.
Children cannot inherit the immune adaptation that their parents have acquired through their lives, but they do inherit the activity levels from their parents’ DNA. The immune system has so much energy to burn, so it finds something potentially deadly, like peanuts or pollen, and attempts to destroy and eliminate that. The parts that have been attacking parasitic worms now attacks pollen in the air or your pet’s fur.
IgE and IgG Immune Reactions Explain Allergy Symptoms
The primary mechanism for allergic reactions involves the release of immunoglobulin E antibodies. These are present both when the body is experiencing allergic reactions, as well as during the fight against intestinal parasites. This may explain why some research suggests that the introduction of a parasitic worm could cure allergies. Perhaps now that the immune system has something legitimate to fight against, it stops trying to beat a dead horse with pollen.
Immunoglobulin E antibodies are typically released when your body is experiencing an invasion by a large organism, like an animal parasite. Maybe the body mistakes pollen for a large organism like a worm and then attacks it like such. If you had an infection in your nose, it would produce similar symptoms to allergies and asthma.
Contrary to the role of IgE antibodies, Immunoglobulin G antibodies do not produce the same broad-range immune response. This type produces much less inflammation, which makes it perfect for fighting against bacteria and viruses. Instead of self-destructing your own body like IgE antibodies do, IgG simply marks small unicellular organisms for disposal so that your immune system can get rid of them quickly.
This is how bacterial and parasitic immune system mechanisms differ.
Sanitation Could Be Making Our Immune Systems Worse
From all this information, you can conclude that moderation is the best way to go when it comes to exposing yourself to deadly pathogens. Sanitation has been making our first world lives so much more sterile, completely lacking of biological excitement. Simply, our immune systems don’t have anything to practice its skills with.
I think that this adequately explains why our younger generations are facing more severe allergies. It could also describe the phenomenon with older adults developing allergies to varieties of different foods all of a sudden when they could safely eat them previously.
So are our living environments a little bit too sterile? And could this be the cause of the allergy epidemic that we are now facing? Very well could be. This, and other factors like nutrient deficiency and allergies should also be considered for healing the allergies that have been caused.
If you have a question or something to add about the Hygiene Hypothesis, then please leave me a comment with the form below!
Talk to you soon,