Autoimmune diseases and allergies occur when the immune system attacks the body, as is the case in food allergies, asthma and celiac disease.
But did you know that asthma, allergies and eczema are on the rise in Westernized countries? Or that food allergies more than tripled in the US over the course of a decade? And that developed countries are seeing a sharp increase in autoimmune and allergic diseases?
As just a couple examples of the prevalence of these issues, asthma affects nearly 37% of children in the United Kingdom, and type 1 diabetes rates have increased 23% over an eight-year period.
Isn't this alarming?
What's the cause? And, more importantly, what can we do?
Many experts are coming to believe that the underlying cause of the increase in these kinds of disease is the microbiome, your body's collection of friendly bacteria, also called microflora.
What does that mean in plain terms? It means we're being exposed to too FEW bacteria.
For example, a recent study found that that infants are much less likely to suffer from allergies if they're exposed to household bacteria and allergens from rodents, cockroaches and cats during their first year of life.
This may seem strange (and kind of gross), but for years scientists and researchers have hypothesized that the reason allergies and autoimmune diseases are on the rise is because we're too clean. The "hygiene hypothesis" theorizes that too-clean environments promote allergies and asthma because there's not enough exposure to various bacteria and allergens in early life.
By contrast, many less wealthy countries (who also tend to have more bacterial and parasitic problems) continue to have much lower rates of all allergic and autoimmune diseases.
Further evidence shows that children who grow up on farms have lower allergy and asthma rates, possibly due to their exposure to bacteria and other microbes.
Of course, the scientific community cannot make any concrete recommendations until further research is done to verify these findings — but I have a personal opinion (based on past science) that I want to share with you.
I think we need to INCREASE the amount of bacteria in our lives, rather than DECREASE.
And I don't think we have to wait for scientific approval to try these things at home. These tips are especially helpful for those of you who have kids or are planning to get pregnant, but they apply to everyone.
1. Get dirty!
This is especially important for kids. For example, let kids play in dirt and climb a tree. My dream for schools across the world is to create a dirt area that's protected from pesticides and fertilizers. They should play in this area, or garden, or just sit and read. Same goes for adults.
2. Don't overclean.
Do you really need to use that antibacterial wipe? Do you really need to sanitize your hands? I practice and recommend that we use antibacterials when there's an obvious risk of bacterial infections, or contact with bodily fluid or feces. I truly believe that the solution is NOT a sterile (bacteria free) world.
3. Use antibiotics judiciously.
Remember, MOST ear infections, sore throats and colds don't require antibiotics. I personally stay away from antibiotics for me and my patients as much as possible.
4. Share your food.
Parents' saliva is actually beneficial to a baby's microbiome, so share food and water with your child! Of course, skip this practice if you're sick, but in general it's a good policy.
5. Check your vitamin D levels.
There's good evidence that low vitamin D levels are correlated with immune system changes, including more allergies and autoimmune issues.
Your levels are increased by sunlight, foods and supplementation. You want your levels to be between 50-70 ng/ml, ideally.
6. Increase your good bacteria by using probiotics.
Before you run to the store for probiotic supplements, understand that natural probiotics in fermented foods are far superior to taking probiotic supplements.
We, and our children, need to reconnect with dirt. Get out of the house and get dirty. Our health depends on it.
So what do you think? Will you try these things? Any other ideas about how to get more good bacteria into your life?