Today, we are focusing on something that I find really interesting and fascinating. Hygiene hypothesis, and its contribution to the huge increase we are seeing in allergies, atopic conditions in our kids such as eczema, asthma and hay fever.
We will discuss the increasing rates of allergies. How hygiene hypothesis is thought to be contributing to the huge increase we are seeing in allergies. Atopic conditions such as eczema and society’s current obsession with hygiene. And its potential implications on our kids’ immune systems. The consumption of processed foods over organic food sources. Use of antibacterial cleaning and personal care products, the importance of kids’ exposure to microbes, and more.
- Download our free Kids’ Gut Health e-book
- Read about the report on Researchers’ estimate that the number of people with allergies is going to increase by 70% over the next 30 years
- Read about allergies and gut health
Welcome everybody to Episode 6 of the Natural Super Kids Podcast!
I hope you enjoy listening to the podcast as much as I enjoy recording these episodes for you. And if you’re a new listener, welcome! We are very early on in the Natural Super Kids Podcast journey. But do feel free to go back and listen to the first five episodes if you haven’t already.
Today, we are focusing on something I find really interesting and fascinating. Hygiene hypothesis, and its contribution to the huge increase we are seeing in allergies, atopic conditions in our kids such as eczema, asthma and hay fever. The hygiene hypothesis is also thought to be linked with autoimmune conditions. Autoimmune conditions are not something we talk about a huge amount here at Natural Super Kids. The reason is because autoimmune conditions generally start to present a bit later in life. However, we are starting to see an increase in the amount of autoimmune conditions that are being diagnosed in our children as well.
So I’ll delve into any of those conditions that link to an immune system in a moment. Have possibly a link with this hygiene hypothesis. You may have heard the term before but I’m going to explain that in a moment. I want to start by talking about allergies because the rate of children with allergies is skyrocketing. Whether they are food allergies, environmental allergies, atopic conditions related to allergies that might present as eczema, asthma, or hay fever. We know that these allergies and atopic conditions are increasing at a huge rate among our children. In fact, allergies are the fastest growing health problem here in Australia. The most common health concern among children.
They are real problems that are affecting the well-being of children and families all over the Western world particularly. Researchers estimate that the number of people with allergies is going to increase by 70%. Over the next 30 years, that’s a huge increase in numbers that are already skyrocketing. That’s really quite scary to think about. And yes, allergies have been around for a long time but the rate at which we’re seeing allergies is much higher than it ever has been before. So in that way, it’s a fairly new problem in terms of the amount of people that allergies are impacting.
Of course, allergies are a complex issue and there’s many factors involved. One of the things we want to be thinking about is the hygiene hypothesis. So there’s no one known cause of allergies and it means that there’s no one clear one-size-fits-all treatment. However, the strongest argument for an underlying cause, or at least significant contributing factor is the hygiene hypothesis. Hygiene hypothesis is a theory that states that our lack of childhood exposure to microbes, increases susceptibility to allergies, atopic conditions, such as eczema and asthma, and to auto immune conditions.
Let’s just think about the immune system for a moment. What allergies, atopic conditions, and even autoimmune conditions are. The immune system protects us against invasion of microbes, bacteria or virus. But the immune system also has a part that regulates that sort of tells the body, “That’s not a threat, we don’t need to sort of initiate our response to that.” For example, when we’re eating foods or when we’re breathing in dust or pet dander. When we are talking about allergies to these kinds of things, it is basically the immune system that’s confused. It’s attacking things or it’s initiating our response to things that it shouldn’t be.
So in a very simplified way, the immune system needs to learn more about what is safe and unsafe for the body. This is where sort of things go wrong when it comes to allergies, eczema and asthma. I keep talking about allergies and atopic conditions in one because atopic conditions have significant allergic components. Certain foods or environmental substances can trigger eczema, for example. It is a condition that affects the skin but it is really at the crux of it, eczema is an immune disorder. It’s the same with asthma. There’s an allergic component to many of the different types of asthma and eczema that are out there.
I do kind of bundle all of those together because from a naturopathic perspective, we’re looking at eczema, asthma, hay fever, rhinitis and those kinds of atopic conditions as an immune disorder. If we can rebalance the immune system, it is less reactive to these things that aren’t essentially dangerous. Unless you’ve got an allergy to them, then that is going to be a good thing. . When we come back to that hygiene hypothesis, really, as a society, we are obsessed with hygiene. This in ways that I’m going to talk about can interfere with the normal development of the immune system.
The immune system learns to respond via exposure to microbes. When our kids are exposed to microbes right from the moment they’re born, their immune system is being trained on how to respond. But nowadays, our kids are exposed to fewer microbes than our generation was and the generations previously. This is because of our obsession with hygiene, and the way that our kids have birthed. The way they are fed, the way they are raised is much more sanitised than it was even a generation ago. This means that the immune system doesn’t get a proper chance to build and develop. To learn how to respond appropriately to different things that it comes in contact with. Whether that be through the digestive tract, the airway passages, or any other means.
This also ties in with the development of the microbiome, which I talk so much about. Children have a much lower diversity of microbes within the gut when they are exposed to different microbes. And we know that low or lack of diversity within the microbiome of the gut is linked with things like eczema, asthma, allergies and food sensitivities. Even the neurodevelopmental conditions, such as autism and ADHD. So the microbiome has a significant role to play in our kids overall health. And hygiene hypothesis really does link in with that.
Let’s have a look at some concrete examples of how our kids’ lack of exposure to microbes happens in the Western world today. It really starts from the way that our kids are born and fed from babies. Our children are now born into very sanitised environments, and yes, in lots of ways, this is really good. I don’t think any of us want to be giving birth onto a dirty, mucky environment that many women did in the past. But these overly sanitised environments are potentially having a negative impact right from day one.
We know that many more babies are born via cesarean section now than, via vaginal delivery. And again, as moms, we are very grateful for that being an option for us now. There are much fewer deaths to both moms and babies while giving birth or while being born these days. So, there is a lot to be thankful for and there are a lot of advances in this are. But when our babies are born via C-section, it does have an impact as they are not making their way through the birth canal. Where they pick up lots of beneficial bacteria and you’re exposed to different microbes, right from the get go.
The increasing amount of babies born via C-section, the environment in which babies are born into. As well as the fact that many more babies are formula-fed these days and not breastfed. Breast milk contains lots of good microbes, for building up that healthy microbiome and exposing our kids to different microbes. We can see that right from the get go, our kids are having less exposure to microbes. Which is potentially having an impact on the amount of allergies that we’re seeing. Again, I do want to say and remind you that this is only one aspect, and it’s a theory. It’s that their allergies and atopic conditions are very complex. I am by no way saying that this is the only thing at play here. But I do think it’s important to bring this to light and to talk about it more.
There is also high incidence of antibiotic use in moms and babies. So kids or babies are being exposed to antibiotics that are reducing their microbiome diversity from a very, very early age. And then, we move on to the food that is available in our world. Today, the way that the food is grown, the farming practices that are used, pesticides, which are killing microbes, essentially, killing pests. The society is asking for that perfect produce that doesn’t have any bugs on it. Doesn’t have any dirt on it and so that is negatively affecting, or reducing exposure to microbes through food. And something that we do every day, multiple times a day, is eat.
Soils treatment cuts down on exposure to microbes. Microbes that we are supposed to be getting from the foods that we’re eating. The way food is processed, you know, the way our fruits and vegetables are washed. In hygiene washes, using things like chlorine, which are removing or reducing our exposure to microbes through the food that we’re eating. More food have preservatives these days than they were 10, 20, 30 years ago. And of course, preservatives are about lengthening the shelf life of our food. So that is reducing microbes within foods, which of course, in some ways, is a good thing. But it is one of the factors that’s reducing our kids’ exposure to microbes, which are so important for developing a healthy immune system.
We can think of different things and products that we’re using within our home. Cleaning products and personal care products, many of which contain antibacterial substances. We’ve got this obsession with hygiene. You watch the ads and moms are led to believe that homes need to be squeaky clean. We need to spray antibacterial cleaning products on all the surfaces. The need to use antibacterial cleaning products on our floors. We need to be sanitising with hand washes and hand sanitisers. And all sorts of personal care products that have antibacterial substances added to them.
These all add up to reducing our kids exposure to these all important microbes. Microbe exposure that needs to happen early on in life to train the immune system to function in a really healthy way. Everything that happened with 2020, the nasty virus that has been around hygiene practices have ramped up a thousand percent. We’re all now using more hand sanitisers and antibacterial products than we probably ever have before. And of course, there are situations and circumstances where this is a really smart thing to do. But I do wonder and worry a little bit on how this is going to be further affecting particularly young children. The amount of microbes that they are exposed to have a healthy impact on immune development.
Also, talking about lifestyle. Think about our kids and how much more time they’re spending in an indoor environment, as opposed to an outdoor environment. For all sorts of different reasons, kids are indoors. Much more for many more hours every day than they ever have been before. And we know that simply being in an outdoor environment is good for our immune system, is good for that microbe exposure. You know, playing in the dirt or even just being in a green space. The simple act of being outside, enhances or increases our exposure to all kinds of different microbes that we don’t get from being in an indoor environment.
So it’s not one thing and one thing only. As you can see or hear, there are a number of different factors that are all leading to this reduced exposure to microbes in our children. If we look at the research, we know that kids with pets have a lower incidence of allergies and atopic conditions. I remember my first child, my son, we had a smaller car and we had a puppy. Our dog is a year older than our eldest son. She was our baby before we had children. We had this small car and I remember distinctly, we didn’t have an area for the dog at the back. I remember my son in his car seat, probably six or seven months old.
He thought it was the funniest thing to open his mouth while I was driving along and the dog would lick him furiously. All around the mouth, inside the mouth, and he would just laugh his head off. That is pretty gross in terms of where dog’s nails have been, and what they chew on. But when we come across and witnessed those things with our kids, it’s good to take a deep breath and know that, yes, it might be a bit gross but it’s also really good for that microbe exposure. For the diversity in the gut microbiome and for reducing the risk of allergies and atopic conditions based on this hygiene hypothesis.
Kids that have pets have a lower incidence of allergies and atopic conditions. We know that firstborn children have a higher incidence of allergies. This is thought to be because they don’t have as much exposure through older siblings to different microbes. So that’s, it’s just really interesting, fascinating research. We also know that children that grow up on farms, generally, in the outdoor environment have a lower incidence of allergies and atopic conditions. Although this doesn’t paint the whole picture when it comes to allergies, eczema and asthma, it is definitely something we want to be aware of.
We want to think about, particularly if we’re pregnant, and we have very young children. We want to try and move away from an obsession with hygiene and keeping our kids squeaky clean. Instead, embrace our kids getting dirty and being exposed to different microbes. Whether it is through other children, through pets, through outdoor environments. So I really hope that this changes the way that you think about hygiene and cleanliness for your family.
We’re really fighting an uphill battle when you look at the commercials and the messages that we are told as moms. That we need to buy all of these antibacterial products, personal care products, and cleaning products to keep our families safe. When in fact, an overuse of these kinds of things can definitely have the opposite impact. And you know, increasing the risk of these immune disorders in our children.
I want to finish up by talking you through some action steps that you can take to practice this hygiene hypothesis. Let’s move away from feeling like everything needs to be sanitised, hygienic, squeaky clean. Instead, embrace the mix, and the dirt. But before we go into those action steps, I just want to read a little blurb from a book called The Dirt Cure by Maya Shetreat-Klein. Maya is a paediatrician over in the US. It’s a fantastic book, I would highly recommend it. She says,
“It turns out that all the things that are messy and dirty in the world. The very things we thought we needed to control or even eliminate to stay alive, are actually the very elements necessary for robust health. Research says that bacteria, fungi, parasites, insects, weeds, and living nutrient dense soil, full of all those elements play direct and critical roles in the health of our food, and by extension the health of our children. Instead of developing new antibiotics, doctors are beginning to treat chronic disease using the opposite approach – bacteria, parasites, soil, even wait for it, stool.”
“You don’t have to be a scientist to know that spending a few hours outside exploring does wonders for any child. We all know that kids thrive when they are connected in all ways to good old fashioned dirt. Research supports this. Kids who take walks in parks or played in green playgrounds have improved attention spans and better test performance and are happier and calmer than their peers who spend their time in less natural environments. Spending time in the forest boosts children’s immune system function measurably. Dirt and nature reach into children’s bodies and minds through their food and play.”
Again, The Dirt Cure is the book’s name. It’s by Maya Shetreat-Klein, who’s a paediatrician over in the US. She’s actually an integrative paediatric neurologist. A very clever lady, but The Dirt Cure is a book that I would highly recommend that kind of delves into this. What we’ve been talking about today, and a bit more.
So here are my action steps, what I would recommend for you.
- This is an easy one we can all do. Remember what’s good for your children’s immune system and gut health is also good for your own. So let’s aim to spend more time outside with our kids. Start with a small, achievable goal. Maybe you could commit to 10 minutes in the back garden. Go for a walk after dinner, or in the afternoon sometime with your kids. Get your kids off the screens that they spend way too much time on. Also ourselves off the screens and simply go for a walk outside. Go to a local park and kick the ball around.
On the weekend, make plans to go and have a picnic in a national park. Go for a hike as a family or go to a nature play playground. Do spend more time outside. If you do this one thing and one thing only, your family’s health will benefit tremendously. Mental health, physical health and stress management. Spending more time outside is good for us in so many ways. Including there’s exposure to different microbes that are so beneficial to our immune system and our gut microbiome.
- Look at the ways that you are using cleaning products in the house. Think about reducing your use of particularly antibacterial substances. Remember, anything that’s antibacterial is going to have a negative effect on the bacteria within the microbiome. I’m not saying never use these products. There’s certainly a time and a place for antibacterial products. But your home surfaces do not all have to be treated with antibacterial chemicals regularly. So think about your use of antibacterial chemicals and use them sparingly in both cleaning products and personal care products.
- Look at where you’re sourcing your food for your family. There’s a certain way of growing and processing commercial foods. Treated in a certain way that is not great in terms of the exposure to different microbes that we can get through food that we eat. Shop at the farmers market, or order an organic box of produce online. Going to a local farm to source, some healthier-grown food is always going to be a good thing. Now, I’m a big fan of farmers market. If you have a farmers market local to you, I would highly recommend getting at least some of your produce from there. Farmers market generally grow foods more locally. And in a much healthier way than the big commercial farms will use. So think about the way that you’re sourcing your food and how you can change that. Even if it’s just one little change each week, definitely think about that.
I do have a fourth action step for you. It is to download our free Gut Health for Kids e-book. I use the analogy of a gut health garden and how we can really help to look after our kids’ gut health. And a big part of that is thinking about ways to expose our kids to a variety of microbes in a healthy way. Microbe exposure that can really help to develop a nice, healthy, robust, well-balanced immune system. It’s totally free and I think you will find it really valuable in terms of some practical steps that you can take based on the information that I’ve shared in today’s podcast.
I’d love to know what you think about today’s topic, whether it’s challenged some of your beliefs. Let me know and definitely leave us a review on iTunes if you can, or send me a DM on Instagram. Let me know what you think and if you have any questions, I’d love to hear from you.