Maybe it is because I spent a large portion of June and July running children’s herbal workshops and baby massage courses but the topic of being concerned about how clean their environment is kept coming up so it seemed logical for this to be my next blog.
Many studies have shown there has been an increase in autoimmune diseases and allergic conditions (1) such as asthma, eczema and food allergies in recent years, with some studies estimating up to 35% of children are affected (2). Whilst knowing that these conditions are on the rise, more importantly for most people are the questions ‘why is it happening’ and ‘what can I do about it?’
Photo courtesy of Josh Calbrese via Unsplash.com
In 1989, Professor David Strachen, from the University of London, coined the term ‘hygiene hypothesis’ in relation to this growing trend when his study showed that that children were less likely to develop allergic rhinitis (hay fever) with the more older siblings they had. He suggested that younger children were exposed to more microbes through the ‘unhygienic’ practices of their older siblings (3).
Fast-forward 30 years and there is a wealth of research and understanding of how our immune systems develop and function that supports this theory. The theory predominantly looks at one element of the immune system called T-helper cells of which there are two types: ‘Th1’ and ‘Th2’. These are types of white blood cells whose job it is to recognize foreign pathogens (something that shouldn’t be in our body) and create an appropriate response to get rid of it. Th1 cells primarily respond to viruses and some bacteria, whilst Th2 respond to bacteria, toxins and allergens.
As a feotus and at birth, the immune system of an infant is skewed towards Th2 dominance, with maturation towards Th1 that normally occurs around 12-18 months. A failure or inadequate response of moving towards a Th1 prominent system is associated with an increase risk of allergy. Put simply, through the use of antibiotics (as medicine and in our food production), increasing use of sterilization products such as bleach and alcohol gel and the use of more processed foods, our immune systems have less to challenge them which usually aids in their development and have less work to do. The phrase ‘the devil makes work for idle hands’ often comes to mind when discussing this topic and I tend to liken this scenario to an immune system that is bored and therefore finds something else (albeit unhelpful) to do.
Whilst the solution isn’t to stop washing your hands or to eat piles of dirt, exposing children to different environments and microbes in a safe way has been indicated as being helpful. Many studies have shown that children with pets, or those raised on farms have a lower rate of allergies with they key message seeming to be that exposure to a diverse microbial community is of most benefit (4). So if you take just one thing away today, it would be that a little bit of dirt is good for you.
(1) Prescott et al. (2013). A global survey of changing patterns of food allergy burden in children
(2) Chad (2001). Allergies in children
(3) Bloomfield et al. (2006). Too clean or not too clean: the Hygeine Hypothesis and home hygeine
(4) Ownby et al. (2016). Recent understanding of pet allergies
Herbal medicine can be very helpful in managing allergies and immune conditions. Find your local herbalist via https://thecpp.uk.
This information is provided as general guidance and should not be considered a substitution for personalised or medical advice.