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Last year, Allergy UK estimated that four out of ten people in Britain will suffer an allergy. Allergies are caused by hypersensitivity of the immune system to harmless substances and can range from food allergies, sinusitis, asthma, skin or chemical sensitivity, and many other forms. 150 years ago allergies were not nearly as prevalent, so is there something we are doing wrong?
Firstly, are we too sanitary? Since the late 19th century, scientific discovery led to the awareness of bacteria causing disease. Sanitation dramatically improved to counteract these illnesses. But have we taken this too far? We take long showers, wash our hands methodically, all in prevention of catching disease and maintaining cleanliness.
Scientists like David Strachan highlight that this strive for sanitation could be weakening our bodies. In Strachan’s hygiene hypothesis,which conducted an experiment on 17,000 British children, he discovered that children with older siblings were less likely to have allergies and eczema. These children had a closer susceptibility to illness and were able to build their immunity from a young age.
It is scientifically proven that with each disease or cold caught the immune system strengthens itself. If we are creating barriers to all bacteria good and bad from sanitation, we are hindering the growth of our immune system. Our obsession with cleanliness could be removing our interaction with harmless bacteria, causing our bodies to turn against the wrong substances.
Dorothy Matthews, a biologist at Russell Sage College, states our body “may overreact to beneficial microbes, because our immune systems have forgotten how to live with them” and therefore due to our nonchalant interaction with other substances our bodies are turning against harmless substances perceiving them as forms of attack.
This could explain the prevalence of allergies in children who are not interacting with bacteria as much as previous generations did. Allergy UK states the percentage of children diagnosed with allergic rhinitis and eczema have both trebled over the last 30 years. This has a strong correlation with childrens’ Westernized lifestyles. The prevalence of allergies is much higher in Western societies whereby industrialization has stripped away interactions with natural environments. Children and adults spent a lot less time outside, with the majority of children spending free time on tablets and computer games rather than playing outside.
This could be where we are going wrong, it is important for children to spend time outside for a healthy immune development. Ilkka Hanski, an ecologist states “let your children play in places where they have contact with soil and vegetation, which are rich in beneficial microbes”. These beneficial microbes allow the development of the child’s natural defenses, whilst also exposing children to common substances in prevention of allergic immune response. Being outside also means children get vitamin D from sunlight, which is proven to prevent overreaction to allergens.
There can be many other influences that are increasing prevalence of allergies, including the overuse of antibiotics, pollution levels, diets, genetically modified foods, and environmental changes. But the moral is to go natural. Get outside, eat organic foods and don’t be afraid of bacteria. Not all bacteria are bad for you and may just help prevent you against allergies in the future. Better get those hiking boots on.