Let me ask you a question that I’ll bet you’ve thought about before.
With all our advancements in modern medicine… with everything we know about how to prevent illnesses… why in the world are we sicker than ever?
The number of people suffering from asthma, serious allergies – and autoimmune diseases like psoriasis and rheumatoid arthritis – is going through the roof.
It’s almost like we’re doing something to ourselves that’s making us sick.
And, in fact, we are.
Our obsession with germfree living is literally destroying our immune systems, causing an explosion in diseases that practically didn’t exist a couple of centuries ago.
That’s something that could put your health – and even your life – at risk. But the good news is that we caused this problem – and we can fix it, too. I’m going to show you some simple things you can do, starting today, to fortify your immune system and help protect yourself from allergies, autoimmune disorders, and other health wrecking diseases.
An allergy explosion
The numbers speak for themselves. Allergic rhinitis (aka ‘hay fever’) currently affects between 10 and 30 per cent of the world’s population – but it was unheard of 200 years ago.
In fact, as far as we know, hay fever was described for the first time ever in 1819 by Dr. John
Bostock. That makes seasonal allergies one of the fastest growing epidemics EVER!
Food allergies are exploding, too, especially in recent years. According to one study, allergies to peanuts and almonds, pecans, and other tree nuts have more than tripled in a recent 10-year period. Other allergic diseases – like those of the skin – have also been on the rise in recent times.
In the UK, cases of eczema have risen more than 40 per cent in just four years.
Let’s not forget about asthma, of course, since it also continues to increase steadily – by as much as 16 per cent a year, according to some surveys in the US. According to the charity Asthma UK, the UK has some of the highest rates in Europe and an average three people a day die from asthma.
Is living clean making us sick?
Now, there’s a theory as to why we have such an increase in allergic diseases – and it’s not just that the world is more polluted today than it was back then. In fact, it’s quite the opposite!
Instead, it seems that our sterile, germ-free environments could actually be the culprits (although probably not the only culprits) behind the development of asthma and allergic disorders.
Known as the ‘Hygiene Hypothesis’, this theory was first proposed in 1989 by Dr.
David Strachan. He found that the more siblings that children had, the less likely they were to develop hay fever. That led him to hypothesize that older siblings likely expose their younger siblings’ developing immune systems to a variety of allergens early in life. This early exposure would make their immune systems less ‘skittish’ – and therefore less reactive to the natural world and the many antigens that it contains.
In the 27 years since Dr. Strachan first proposed it, many other pieces of information have come to light in support of this theory. For example, it’s been found that children who are in childcare settings when young tend to have a lower risk of asthma, and those who grow up on a farm or have lots of rural exposure also have lower incidences of allergic diseases.6
This is even true if the child is only exposed while in the womb! One interesting group of studies looked at children born in East Germany versus West
Germany. The assumption was that since East Germans had a less ‘Westernized’ environment, they would have been exposed to more organisms in early life – and sure enough, the children raised in East Germany had lower incidences of asthma and allergy.
However, after German unification, they became more like their West German counterparts, with increasing levels of these types of disorders.
The home and living environments aren’t the only factors implicated in this explosive increase in asthma and allergy. There’s more and more evidence that antibiotic use in early life is associated with the development of allergy and asthma later on. The use of antibiotics in early childhood increased sharply in the late 1980s and early 1990s – and, at the same time, the allergy rate started to trend upwards.8 And that’s simply hard to ignore.
A delicate balance of defence and attack
To understand why this all makes sense, we need to understand how our immune systems work (or are supposed to work).
This gets a little scientific, but bear with me. The white blood cells that are responsible for most of the ‘heavy lifting’ of the immune system are called ‘lymphocytes,’ and, as their name implies, they’re found in your lymphatic system. There are different types of lymphocytes – including T cells, B cells, and ‘Natural Killer’/NK cells – but for this topic, we’ll talk about the T cells.
In particular, two subtypes of T cells – T helper cells and T regulatory cells – make sure that an immune response is initiated when it needs to be, that the immune response isn’t too weak or too strong, and that it ‘turns off’ when the danger has passed.
The two subtypes of T Helper cells are TH1 and TH2. TH1 lymphocytes guard against viruses, parasites, and fungi – as well as cancer. This is called ‘cellular immunity’, because it guards the cells themselves.
TH2 lymphocytes, on the other hand, travel in the bloodstream, triggering the formation of the antibodies that go out and attach to antigens, enabling them to be damaged and killed. The TH2 response is considered ‘humoral immunity’ (that is, travelling in the blood), and it’s is largely what we think of as allergy.
Now, the TH1 and TH2 cells may do much of the legwork, but it’s the dendritic cells – generally found on your skin – that act as a kind of ‘lookout’ and announce that trouble is on its way.
When dendritic cells become activated, they send a message out to not only initiate an immune response, but also to determine how powerful a response it should be.
That means calling upon the T helper cells, and producing T regulatory (‘Treg’) cells to modulate the immune response and make sure it doesn’t go overboard.
Now imagine a situation where the T helper cells are activated, but aren’t properly kept in check with Treg cells. You’d have an immune response gone haywire. And that’s essentially what’s happening when you have an autoimmune disease.
Immunity is a skill you learn
But something else can go wrong with the TH1 and TH2 immune responses, starting with the very first moments of life. And that’s where the Hygiene Hypothesis comes in.
In the womb, the environment is predominantly TH2 by default. If TH1 was predominant, there is a risk that the mother’s immune system might reject the foetus and placenta as foreign matter.
By design, this TH2 predominance is temporary. After birth, exposure to environmental organisms outside of the womb (viruses, pollens, food antigens, etc.) stimulates the TH1 response until an ideal balance of TH1 and TH2 is established.
But if the newborn comes into a completely sterile world – or is given antibiotics at or near the beginning of life – there’s nothing to wake the dormant TH1 response up, leaving the newborn’s T helper cells way out of balance.
As the TH2 response continues to dominate, the child becomes allergic and is at increased risk of autoimmune responses, candida, and other fungi. And we don’t even know yet how this may affect the child’s future risk of developing cancer and possible inability to fight it.
Many studies have shown a correlation between early age antibiotic use and later-age asthma and allergy. One study of more than 193,000 children in several countries showed that antibiotic therapy before their first birthday led to higher incidences of asthma and eczema by age six or seven.
This conclusion was supported by both a Canadian study of over 215,000 children and a Spanish study of 13,908 children. Now, it has been argued that antibiotics could have been prescribed to treat the symptoms (like coughing and wheezing) that actually turned out to be early signs of asthma. And, if that were true, the studies would be mixing cause and effect.
But I’m inclined to say that although that scenario is possible, it doesn’t apply to these studies because it still doesn’t explain the correlation between antibiotics and allergic skin diseases like eczema.
At this point, the Hygiene Hypothesis is just a theory. Although many studies seem to support it, it’s far from having been proven. But there’s a lot of new science coming out of places like the Mayo Clinic and Johns Hopkins that’s deepening our understanding of it… and it’s a real enough possibility that even the US medical authorities have acknowledged it.
Preventing one illness may bring on another
Think about all the things we do to prevent illness and death, from pumping antibacterial soap into our hands at the sink to dutifully getting an annual flu shot (even though they largely don’t work).
And at the slightest sign of a sniffle, we can get a prescription for an antibiotic filled in two seconds flat. But all in all, it seems that in our attempts to keep our children free from germs of any sort and free from any and ALL illnesses (even the benign childhood illnesses that we all survived), we’ve helped to create a monster.
On a day-to-day basis, our immune systems have had nothing to do since before birth – so by the time we’re faced with a real threat out in the ‘real world’, our bodies can’t quite figure out what to do.
But regardless of what’s happened in the past, there are ways to naturally boost immunity NOW… fight off any diseases that may have already developed… and guard against whatever may come in the future.
And that applies to those of us who’ve got quite a few years under our belts as well as the little ones who haven’t made their grand entrance yet.
I’ve had a lot of success using probiotics with my patients, since replenishing the ‘good’ bacteria in your gut can bulk up your line of defence against any ‘bad’ bacteria. Probiotics have even been shown to help relieve hay fever AND eczema!
There’s a particularly potent probiotic that can help fight autoimmune diseases like ulcerative colitis. On a final note, I would never tell you to stop washing your hands… but maybe ditch the antibacterial soaps and wipes. They could be doing more harm than good.
Instead, you can try nature’s own vampire repellent and natural germicide, garlic. If you don’t love eating it with your food, you can also take it as a supplement, along with other immune-boosting nutrients like vitamin C and zinc.
Zinc deficiency is common among people over the age of 55, and zinc is important for a properly functioning immune system. All it takes is 30mg a day for 30 days to increase your T cells to fight off infections – especially if your immune system is already compromised.
Dr. Glenn S. Rothfeld
Nutrition & Healing
Vol. 10, Issue 7 • July 2016
Full references and citations for this article are available in the downloadable PDF version of the monthly Nutrition and Healing issue in which this article appears.