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The Sterile Life: What We’ve Lost and Gained

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Getting in Touch With our Immune Systems

The Sterile Life: What We’ve Lost and Gained

The Sterile Life: What We’ve Lost and Gained. Photo Courtesy of blog.lib.umn.eduBefore refrigeration, sewer systems, hand sanitizer, indoor living, water treatment and germophobia – that is, most of human history – allergies and autoimmune disorders were pretty rare. People came into contact with intestinal worms and a huge range of viruses and bacteria during day-to-day living, and those kind of conditions are increasingly linked to an immune system that doesn’t overreact to small triggers because it faces so much background microbial “noise” on a regular basis and gets well-calibrated early in life. Studies have documented a vastly lower rate of allergies and asthma among farm communities who drink raw milk, like small Amish communities in the U.S. and small Swiss villages.

Dr. Graham Rook, a professor in the department of infection at the Centre for Clinical Microbiology at the University College London, told U.S. News in 2011: “The bottom line is organisms that were present in mud, untreated water, and feces were with us right from the start of humanity. What has happened over the course of evolution is, because these bugs had to be tolerated, they came to activate the tolerance of the immune system. They are the police force that keeps the immune system from becoming trigger-happy. Basically, the immune system is now attacking things it shouldn’t be attacking.”

We tend to view our immune systems as somewhat static, rather than constantly learning, changing and evolving in interaction with its environment. It turns out, though, that they get conditioned in a process similar to building a muscle or learning a dance move. Good immunity isn’t automatic, but intrinsically linked to both our biology and our environmental circumstances. As soon as your immune system is challenged by a bug and fights it off, it makes a new memory and adapts.

The Melbourne Weekly said farmers’ markets’ “greatest social contribution may be as a vehicle for putting dirt back into the Western diet and in the process, reacquainting the human immune system with some ‘old friends.’”

There are of course many aspects of modern life that have become more sanitized, but the basic fact that great majority of Western humanity has moved off the farm, does not come into contact with livestock, and does not live on a dirt floor probably accounts for a huge portion of the change in our immune systems in recent history. Of course, it’s certainly a trade-off. Most of us wouldn’t opt to go back to the days of anticipating an early death at the hands of infectious disease, or intestinal worms as a way of life. After all, the Western world now has the safest food supply in human history. But it sheds light on just how much the shift away from agrarian life changed everything. As with so many aspects of our food supply, we’ve reached terrain that our stomachs barely recognize.

In the space of only a few decades, children have also stopped inhabiting the natural world. They don’t work outside in a farm setting the way they used to (mostly a good thing, since they are in school instead), but they’ve also stopped playing outside the way they did only a few generations ago. Video games, television, and many after-school activities supplanted outdoor time. Childhood exposure to different micro-organisms is critical for development of a healthy, balanced immune system. Kids explore the world with their senses, but when they try to put everything in sight in their mouths, that’s their immune system getting acquainted with the world’s microfauna. Everything they can get into their mouths has potentially new germs on it that their system can add to its list of known entities, reducing the odds that it will overreact when they meet again.

Mothers transmit beneficial microbes to their infants during childbirth, but the rise in C-section births means that most of these are not being passed to the next generation. Antibiotics are also used heavily in early childhood, which leaves the young immune system depleted of both good and bad microbes. The protective effects of many childhood diseases like colds and chickenpox, leading to antibody development, have long been known. There is also an association between large family size (increasingly a thing of the past) and reduced rates of asthma and allergies. And kinds who grow up on farms are much less likely to develop autoimmune conditions.

In a New York Times editorial, Jeff Leach speculated that the outbreaks of food-borne pathogens we regularly experience can be traced to this phenomenon and is a “symptom of our minimally challenged and thus overreactive immune system.”

Intestinal worms are thought to have played a large role in conditioning the immune response. Most are harmless, especially in well-nourished humans who are adapted to them. Eradication of worms in some villages in The Gambia led to increased child skin reactions to allergens. Pig whipworms can be an effective treatment for inflammatory bowel diseases, Crohn’s Disease, and ulcerative colitis, all chronic autoimmune conditions.

Vaccine development is actually based on this concept of controlled exposure. By exposing our bodies to a tiny amount of a disease, the immune system can mount its defenses against it, while gaining healthy familiarity. It’s a concept we’ve understood for many years but somehow haven’t widely applied to everyday life, a realm in which we had become convinced the safest course of action was the most sterile one.

Genevieve Slocum is a Contributor to The Free George.

The Free George is the online magazine and visitors’ guide of Upstate NY, covering things from Albany to Lake Placid, including Saratoga, the Lake George region and the Adirondacks. Check out our City Blogs section for our extended coverage areas as well.

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