The Hygiene Hypothesis and Asthma and Allergies and Eczema: An Epidemic of Absence
The hygiene hypothesis and asthma... and allergies... and eczema....
essentially links the lack of exposure to microbes, parasites, infectious disease... to a miseducated immune system manifesting in things like asthma, food allergies, eczema, MS, Crohns... you name it.
At its core, the hygiene hypothesis asserts that we have evolved to co-exist with these other symbiotic and parasitic microorganisms. Therefore our immune systems expect to work with them. And in their absence immune dis-regulation, allergy, and autoimmune diseases prosper. Ugh!
It's as if we outsourced entire departments of our body's functions and then fired those teams - pink-slipped accounting, dispatch, engineering, human resources....
The Hygiene Hypothesis and Asthma, Allergies, Eczema makes sense to me.
There is a great deal of buzz and emerging science around it. Most people have heard about it. Even world renowned allergist and immunologist Dr Li, whose focus is on Chinese Herbs and allergies, discusses epigenetics & microbial exposure as having a large impact on asthma, food allergies, and the immune system.
So, we're missing our "Old Friends." Then compound this with exploding levels of environmental toxins, less nutritious food, and "better" medicine, and you've got a perfect allergic storm.
This brings to the book, An Epidemic of Absence: A New Way of Understanding Allergies and Autoimmune Diseases.
Penned by Moises Velasquez-Manoff, this amazing book is a mashup of history and science. It lays out how the human immune system has come to be a community of human cells and non-human living microrganisms working together for our health.
He uses his own journey self-infecting with helminths, as the launching pad to talk about cutting edge therapies that involve bringing back selected "old friends" to modulate the immune system.
What If Asthma and Allergies Are Evolved Survival Mechanisms?
An Epidemic of Absence is a truly amazing, educational, and inspiring read.
It has, for a brief moment, spun my perspective on my son's allergies. It’s as if my son’s body has evolved to negotiate a world that suddenly shifted over the last 50-100 years.
As if allergies and asthma were not a disease but a responsive communal mechanism developed over millions of years of co-existence with micro-organisms, parasites, bacteria, fungi…
And now that those "Old Friends" have been removed: through hygiene, vaccination, modernity…. we're left with asthma and allergies.
Another refreshing of this idea is that these things that we have been told are disease, are really beautiful biological partners that have found themselves on the dance floor alone. A sort of “it takes two to tango,” that is now clumsily performed by one.
It's inspiring to have a different glimpse of this stuff that has been my obsession since the diagnosis – as not disease.
It’s painted a different perspective for me.
If we lived in the world our bodies have honed themselves over the millenia to expect, one with our ‘old friends’ like parasites, bacteria and viruses that span TB to polio, then it’s completely possible that my son would be the shining example of robustness – as opposed to the kid with the inhaler, benedryl, and epi slung over his shoulder in a carry bag gauging whether or not the pollen level is too high to play outside, or if the person about to shake his hand was recently eating peanuts…
Oh the joy this brief glimpse of what could be brings.
The depressing, or disheartening side of things, is that Moises talks about a window of opportunity for molding or shifting the immune system is most open (he claims only open) during childhood.
So our bacterial and parasitic partners can only prevent allergy/asthma if they make an appearance in childhood before, or within a tiny time-frame of exposure to, say ragweed or peanuts. And that once we reach adulthood, our immune systems are pretty much set in their ways. Miss this window of youthful malleability and your basically left with managing a skewed immune system.
He does however, offer glimmers of hope. Not only, does he embark on self-infecting with helminths and discuss his experience (Mr Velasquez-Manoff himself has asthma and autoimmune alopecia), but he also goes on to talk about the bacteria, Mycobacterium Vaccae. This soil and cow dung dwelling inhabitant brought to brief fame by the Stanfords in the early 1970′s. In fact the Stanford's supposedly corrected Mrs Stanford’s Raynaud’s syndrome (autoimmune disease). Better than that though, apparently “M. Vacae injections helped their daughter’s asthma…”
This is interesting. This affirms, to me, that maybe the immune system is more malleable in adulthood than we think.
Some of the things you'll learn in An Epidemic of Absence:
- What does it feel like to self-infect with helminths?
- How our new less diverse microbiome landscapes and living among crowds effect the spread of infectious diseases like ebola and avian flu.
- How the quest to eradicate infectious diseases like malaria and measles leads to more immune and auto-immune issues and diseases.
- What are the key developmental windows for exposure to helminths and other "old friends." What can be done if you've missed those windows.
- What exciting therapies are on the horizon for those who live with allergies and autoimmune diseases.
- Why everyone should be concerned about the shifting microbes in our bodies, not just those with asthma and allergies.
I highly recommend An Epidemic of Absence. It's a must read for anyone who has or loves someone affected by an immune or auto-immune issue.
Also, if you're as interested as I, you can watch my interview with Moises Velasquez-Manoff, where he goes into great detail discussing The Hygiene Hypothesis and immune system, here. He also discusses how hosting helminths affected his asthma, food allergies, and autoimmune alopecia.