Although medical therapeutics can save you from the clutches of Hepatitis C, polio and tetanus, they have one glaring failure that dims their vast and storied accomplishments: ultimately, no medicine in the world will save you from your own immune system.
My best friend is allergic to gluten, my cousin is severely allergic to peanuts and my brother is allergic to dairy. At times, it seems like everyone I know has some sort of intolerance.
And as it turns out, I am not just being paranoid. According to a 2013 report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, food allergies have increased about 50 percent between 1997 and 2011. In fact, every three minutes an allergic reaction sends someone to the emergency room.
Though the number of people diagnosed with food allergies keeps increasing, there is no consensus on what process is responsible for the pattern. This is alarming because food allergies have no cure. Strict avoidance of potential allergens is recommended, but nothing can make allergies vanish.
Why has science failed us and why haven’t researchers developed a cure yet? One prevailing idea is the hygiene hypothesis.
Though we often think of ourselves as individuals, our body is actually an ecosystem for a vast number of microbes. We house over 10 trillion microbial cells (compared to our pitiful 1 trillion human cells) and these organisms coat our body surfaces to produce necessary vitamins, digest our food and help our immune system distinguish between friendly visitors and dangerous pathogens.
The hygiene hypothesis says that our complex body ecosystem has experienced a depletion in microbial diversity over the last century. Two contributing factors include increased consumption of processed items like sugar or pharmaceutical drugs and widespread usage of pesticides or harsh chemicals. However, the main reason why our delicate microflora balance seems to be under assault has to do with the physical environment.
Developed nations have become so clean that their surroundings do not contain the requisite germs needed to train our immune systems. As a result, our immune systems have not been educated to solely launch their defense systems against infectious agents. Since our naive immune systems do not receive the necessary input from their microbial neighbors, they tend to overreact when they come in contact with benign substances.
This environmental sanitation change has occurred within such a short evolutionary time span that humans have not had time to adapt without microbial guidance.
Examining the global incidences of food allergies shows that although most countries show increasing food allergy rates, this phenomenon is primarily a first world problem. How ironic that countries with the cleanliest environments suffer the most — who would have thought that the Western world’s quest for hygiene would be so problematic?
According to this hypothesis, we need to allow our microbiome to re-equilibrate. Perhaps stay away from antibacterial soaps, limit hand sanitizer use and eat more natural, organic foods.
Though these suggestions may help individuals temporarily cultivate a slightly richer microbiome, in the end these are very short-term fixes; the rise in food allergies seems more associated with specific lifestyles. It is literally the clean air we breathe and germ-free water we drink that is our downfall.
Scientists have not been able to develop a magical panacea for food allergies because this involves the enormous task of educating the immune system to stop misbehaving, and taking on the role of our microbiome. Who knows which specific organism allows our body to properly function? Each individual has a unique microbiome which continually changes throughout his life. It is the interaction of various organisms which allows our body to carry out specific tasks. Developing a cure-all is a monumental task. Though desensitization therapies exist — in which patients are gradually introduced to miniscule amounts of a food allergen until they can tolerate larger amounts without reacting to the substance — it cannot be tested on people with severe allergies.
As for now, all we can really do is find ways to change our lifestyle to incorporate more microbes into our body collections. Eventually if we wait long enough, evolution should do the trick and better equip our immune systems to deal with the clean environment. Regardless, we need to stop insulating ourselves from the world and its microorganism inhabitants! So — for the sake of your health — get up, get out, and don’t be afraid to get dirty.
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