GUARDING THE TEMPLE
TRAINING THE IMMUNE SYSTEM --WOULD A LITTLE DIRT HURT?
The people in United States and other “developed” countries are the most scrubbed, rubbed, cleansed, disinfected, preserved, and sterilized human history. With our germ phobias leading the way, we have disinfected everything possible. People wash with antibacterial soap. Doctors bombard every last speck of bacteria with powerful antibiotics to make sure that we and our children live in a sterile world.
Nothing is more sterile than a hospital. We do everything we can to be as clean and sterile as possible. In fact the word “sterile” is often used on a product to convince us to buy it – meaning there are no germs in it at all.
But is this good? Are all germs bad?
Researchers are asking themselves these very questions. In the USA there are presently one million Americans who have Crohn’s disease or some similar bowel disorder called ulcerative colitis. Crohn’s disease is a chronic condition where the immune system mistakenly attacks the small intestine. In the USA and in other developed countries three to four times as many people get Crohn’s disease as they did in 1930’s. Other disorders that involve an overactive immune system include diabetes, allergies, asthma – and these have experienced similar rises in rates.
Why are these disorders on the upswing? Some scientists have named a surprising culprit: cleanliness!
HYGIENE HYPOTHESIS: During the 20th century, life in the USA and other developed countries has become increasingly sanitized. Our water is cleaner, our food is refrigerated to keep bacteria from growing on it, and we are vaccinated against many diseases and germs. We are exposed to far fewer bacteria, fungi, worms and other microorganisms than our ancestors were. There are warnings about using a wood cutting board because it may have bacterial on it. We don’t want to get our hands in the dirt and it is considered a sign of prosperity to have others do our “dirty work” for us.
By contrast, people who lived in underdeveloped countries live with a lot more dirt and germs. Surprisingly, these people have fewer diseases involving an overactive immune system! So, some researchers have begun to wonder whether a lack of exposure to microbes might be making people sick! Joel Weinstock, a professor of medicine at the University of Iowa wrote, “We just assume that the cleaner you are the better off you are. Is hygiene really healthy?”
Weinstock is a proponent of the “hygiene hypothesis.” It says that exposure to certain microbes is good for the human body. According to this theory germs train the immune system and keep it in shape. When the immune system doesn’t get much of a workout from microbes, it may find another way to stay active. “The immune system may turn against the body, “ said Athos Bousvaros, a doctor at Children’s Hospital Boston.
WORM THERAPY: Not all microbes are the same, however. Only certain ones appear to be good at teaching the immune system and training it. Among the good teachers, Weinstock says, are worms called helminthes, which live in the gut. When helminthes enter the body they prompt certain immune cells to secrete chemicals. Those chemicals work as the immune system’s stop signs and traffic lights – keeping the body’s immune system under control. Without these chemicals, Weinstock believes, the immune system is in trouble.
To test whether worms make a difference, Weinstock fed helminth eggs immersed in Gatorade to 30 patients with ulcerative colitis for 3 months. Nearly half the patients reported a major improvement in their symptoms. In the second study, 21 of 29 patients with Crohn’s disease who were treated with helminth worms for 6 months went into remission with symptoms disappearing.
Other studies show that parasitic worms offer protection against allergies and asthma. As you know, asthma is an allergic condition in which the immune system overreacts to substances in the environment such as pollen and dust mites, causing breathing difficulties. Maria Yazdanbakhsh, a Dutch immunologist, gave 152 African school children a medication. The result was that 29 of the kids developed an allergy to dust mites. The worms seemed to help prevent the allergy. Other studies have shown that infecting mice with helminth protects them against asthma and diabetes.
Worms are not the only organisms that promote the development of a healthy immune system. Scientists say that bacteria play an important role too. A group of researchers studying children in rural Austria, Germany and Switzerland found that the kids were less likely to have asthma, hay fever or an allergic skin disorder when their bed mattresses contained high levels of endotoxins. An enotoxin is a substance contained in some bacteria. The results suggest that a child’s exposure to some bacteria may help the immune system tolerate, rather than overreact to such substances as pollen.
Another study has shown that certain bacteria can ward off allergic reactions in mice. And harmless bacteria called lactobacilli – contained in yogurt – have been used successfully to treat allergic skin diseases in infants and children.
For years I have wondered why it is that antibiotics depress the immune system. Based on the hygiene theory, it appears that antibiotics kill out the good bacteria that help regulate and train the immune system. Without them, the immune system is not enhanced and thus lowered.
Foods containing bacteria are important for the body’s immune system. Yogurt, sauerkraut, other fermented or pickled vegetables help replenish good bacteria in the body.
HOW CLEAN IS CLEAN? No one knows for sure. Experts are now saying that bathing daily with antibacterial soap is probably a bad idea. Human skin is meant to be covered with bacteria that help keep it healthy.
Practicing sensible hygiene is still important. Some microbes can make you sick. So it is prudent to wash your hands before preparing food or eating and after using the bathroom. But the truth is that many bacteria are your good friends and live in and on your body in an ecology that is yours to preserve.
David L. Antion for Guardian Ministries