Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Healthy Habits: The Link Between Dirt and Allergies

Up to 50 million Americans, including eight percent of children, have some type of allergy. Allergies account for the loss of an estimated 2 million school days per year and over 4 million missed workdays. And the answer to this apparent disconnect may lie in the emerging science of the hologenome and our contemporary fastidious cleanliness compared to prior generations.

According to Dr. Bill Miller, a thirty-year physician in both academic and private practice and author of The Microcosm Within: Evolution and Extinction in the Hologenome, “in our zeal to protect against harmful infections, we have inadvertently shielded ourselves and our children from the typical exposure to a diverse array of microbial life that had characterized all prior generations. The consequence of this exclusion from these vital associations is experienced as a significant increase in allergic reactions such as hay fever, food intolerance and asthma.”

According to a new study the climate warming and the resultant weather effect will cause this allergy season to be the worst we have ever seen. 

I had a chance to interview Dr. Miller to learn more.

How can something like cleanliness actually contribute to allergies?
Over the last 20-30 years, there has been an overall increase in the incidence of allergic diseases and asthma, particularly in children. One particularly surprising trend has been a growing dichotomy between industrialized countries and non-developed nations. Allergies and asthma are increasing faster in the industrialized world. Current research has suggested that the surge of allergic symptoms is related to our attempt to distance ourselves from our ubiquitous microbial companions. This has been dubbed the “hygiene hypothesis. We are learning that a healthy immune system requires exposure to microbes at an early age. Microbes not only cause disease but are essential participants in our health. In the last few decades, we have been putting a greater emphasis on cleanliness and have inadvertently changed the compostion and number of microbial partners that we encounter. One inadvdertent result is an increase in symptoms of allergy and the incidence of asthma. This has been most prounounced in children, with a 50% increase in food allergies noted since 1997.

Why can parents relax about kids getting dirty and sharing toys?
If your child has been appropriately vaccinated, then sharing toys and germs with other children is a healthy, normal part of play. This is one of the ways in which children develop a capable immune system.

What other factors are affecting the rise in allergies?
It is now believed that overuse of antibiotics is a factor. Antibiotics are wonderful tools and are essential in our enduring fight against aggressive pathogens. However, whenever they are administered, they can also affect other, non-aggressive microbes that are necessary for our health and well-being. Therefore, it is important to only use antibiotics when they are definitely indicated.

What can parents do if their kids are already struggling with allergies?
Of course, most parents have learned to cope by carefully using medication to control symptoms according to the best interests of their child. Certainly allowing your child to actively play outside and with others when allergies are not a current issue is helpful in the long term development of a healthy immune system. Avoiding inappropriate antibiotic usage is important too. Lastly, some children and adults seem to improve with the consumption of probiotics. Parents can experiment with them and see if there is a helpful impact.

What should parents of non-allergic kids be aware of?
Allergies can start at any age. Some people don't experience any allergic symptoms until they are adults and sometimes, allergies can trigger for the first time in old age. As a parent, awareness is the key. When a pattern of allergy seems to be starting, early administration of medications to control symptoms is often helpful to lessen the overall severity of any allergy season. Lastly, some recent studies have suggested that children growing up with a household pets, especially dogs, experience a lower incidence of asthma and allergy in adulthood. 

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