Should Americans Get Even Dirtier?
Feb 3rd, 2012 | By Sarah | Category: Health, Top Headline | Print This Article
Think back to when you were a kid. Can you remember any of your friends being deathly allergic to peanuts or sensitive to gluten and lactose? There has definitely been a major rise in food allergies over the last decade or two. Children today seem unable to eat great swaths of food without getting sick or even dying. Many public schools have even banned peanuts and peanut butter from the premises because some kid’s throats swell up just from being near them.
Unfortunately, as with the rise of autism spectrum disorders, no one can definitively say why more children are developing allergies to foods than ever before. There are many hypotheses about what has caused the increase. They include genetically modified foods, vaccinations, foods eaten during pregnancy, and overzealous hygiene. None of these things have been proven to cause food allergies in children, but the hygiene question has gotten the most credit so far.
What Do We Know for Sure About Allergies?
Allergic reactions are related to the immune system. The immune system in each person produces specialized cells called antibodies. Antibodies hunt out threats in the body, such as bacteria and viruses, and then signal the immune system to release chemicals to destroy the invaders. In a person with a food allergy, the immune system creates an antibody called immunoglobulin E, or IgE, which targets certain food proteins. When that person consumes the food that contains that protein, an immune response is triggered.
The immune response releases several chemicals, but the one responsible for the characteristic symptoms of an allergic reaction is histamine. Histamine causes blood vessels to swell, it stimulates nerve endings, making skin itchy, and it increases the amount of mucus in the nose, causing congestion. In very serious allergies, the amount of histamine released is large and can cause anaphylaxis. This can result in death if not treated quickly.
What causes certain people to have certain food allergies is not fully understood. It is known, however, that there are risk factors. For instance, children with other types of allergies are more likely to develop food allergies. Those with a family history of food allergies are also more likely to have them.
The Hygiene Hypothesis
While there have been many suggestions as to what has caused the rise in food allergies in recent years, the one that has received the most attention is known as the hygiene hypothesis. The basic idea behind the hypothesis is that when children are exposed to few germs, their immune systems don’t develop properly.
There are other cases of hygiene causing medical issues. Over the last twenty years or so, several antibiotics, which previously fought off serious infections, have become ineffective. The bacteria evolved to the point where these antibiotics no longer kill them. It is known as a fact that this results from overuse. Doctors have long pushed the use of antibiotics even when they were not necessary or even useless. Stores and advertisements have pushed us to use antibacterial soaps. It is nearly impossible, in fact, to find hand soap in the store that is not antibacterial. This overuse of antibiotics and antibacterial cleansers led to the quick evolution of the bacteria. Running out of antibiotics that work is a serious problem for those who develop difficult infections and for those who have compromised immune systems.
While the dangers of overusing antibiotics have become fact, the hygiene idea of food allergies is still only a hypothesis. It is true, however, that we live in cleaner, more sterile environments than in the past. Large companies that sell cleaning products and antibacterial agents have pushed cleanliness on us to the point of ridiculousness. Mothers are made to feel guilty if their kitchens and bathrooms are not disinfected on a daily basis or if their children come in from playing outside covered in dirt and mud.
Science and medicine, however, has proven that children need exposure to germs to develop a normal and healthy immune system. Without any bacteria or viruses to fight off, the immune system is like a flabby, out of shape body. It cannot fight future infections as well because it is not in the proper shape. But is this related to food allergies?
It might be. The idea is that when your child’s immune system has no real foreign invaders to battle, it turns to otherwise harmless compounds, like food proteins. Instead of fighting infections, the immune system may be developing food allergies just to have something to do. The hypothesis remains unproven, but many experts agree that it is a very valid idea and just may be true.
What to Do?
Proponents of the hygiene hypothesis would not suggest that you stop washing your hands or bathing. They would however, encourage you to stop over-worrying about cleanliness. It is okay, and in fact good, for kids to go outside and play in the dirt. They can get their hands dirty and roll around in the mud, and they will be stronger for it. Avoid antibacterial cleansers and never use antibiotics unless they are truly necessary.
As a homesteader or off-the-grid family, you probably keep animals. That is good news for your kids. Statistics show that kids who grow up around animals are less likely to develop allergies. Don’t be afraid to let your kids get in there and help with the care of the chickens, cows, goats, sheep, or whatever other animals you have. They will benefit in the long run.
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