Despite our best intentions in sterilizing our world, allergies are on the rise. We’ve already been cautioned about the overuse of hand sanitizers—for both ourselves and our kids. Keeping everything so hyper germ-free seems to have worked against us instead of protected us. According to the National Institutes of Health, hay fever, respiratory allergies and other allergies affect approximately 10% of children under the age of 18. But when you step back and consider the big picture, it makes sense, right? It helps for our systems to be exposed to certain bacteria in order to learn how to fight them—that’s the whole purpose of a vaccine.
An intriguing study published in the New England Journal of Medicine has broken new ground in asthma and allergy research. Some time ago, children from an Amish community in Indiana were found to be the least allergic subgroup ever measured in the developed world. Only recently did scientists identify another group to which the Amish children could be compared for scientific study—the Hutterites of North Dakota, who exhibit as many allergy and asthma symptoms as your average American.
Not only do the Amish and the Hutterites have similar genetic backgrounds, but the two communities also lead similar lifestyles: They are farmers with large families, similar diets, a simple way of life, and meticulously clean homes. Dust (because no matter how clean a house is…there’s always dust somewhere!) from the homes of both groups was analyzed to try to discover the reason for the difference in their health. A close look revealed that the Amish dust was loaded with nearly six times the amount of debris from bacteria than the Hutterite dust.
A possible reason for this is that the cow barns on the smaller Amish homesteads are typically located directly next to their living quarters, but the Hutterites house their livestock quite a distance away. It’s likely that the Amish simply track more microbes into the home due to this proximity, or some might just naturally blow in through open doors and windows.
Researchers studied the effects of the two kinds of dust on mice who inhaled the particles every day over a month’s time. Remarkably, the Amish dust prevented symptoms of asthma, while dust from the Hutterite home encouraged them. The simplicity of the idea that these microbes stimulate the innate immune system is “…precisely why we’re so excited,” Donata Vercelli, a senior author on the study, says. “This seems to be a manageable situation—one that could lead to a plausible intervention, like a preventive medication based on Amish microbes.”
Now, before folks start bottling particle-laden dust for children to sniff, or encourage kids to go roll around in a local pasture, we have to remember that the real breakthrough here is that an important component of “the farm effect” has been identified. Also, this was a relatively small study, and the particular microbes that are critical in the findings haven’t yet been identified. Further research is required to figure out where these microbes settle in the body as well.
So there is definitely more work to be done, but for the sake of those with itchy noses and watery eyes, it’s good to know we’re on the right track.