BY: DUSTIN BATTY
Asthma is an increasing problem in the world. According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology website, over 8 percent of the American population has asthma, and “The number of people with asthma continues to grow.” Asthma is even more common in children than adults; in 2009, 10 percent of children had asthma, compared to 8 percent of adults. A recent study has found that an important factor in its increasing presence is our obsession with cleanliness.
Ironically, being overly hygienic can be harmful to our health. According to a Science Daily article on the study, when the human body doesn’t have any exposure to the microbes (such as bacteria) that are prevalent in “non-hygienic” environments, it has no opportunity to properly develop its immune system. This prevents it from effectively combatting asthma and other allergies.
In order for our immune systems to develop properly, we need to spend time around the microbes that can be found outside.
The study examines mice, which are genetically very similar to humans and can provide insight into many conditions that affect humans, including asthma. The study found that mice who lived in an overly-hygienic environment were much more likely to suffer from asthma, whereas those who lived in a non-hygienic environment developed “pulmonary macrophages” that prevented asthma from developing.
Interestingly, the study found that if the macrophages were transferred to overly-hygienic mice, they wouldn’t develop asthma. Similarly, if mice with asthma were given the macrophages, they would be cured. The researchers are now looking for a way to develop these macrophages so that they can be a safe treatment for asthma in humans.
Without exposure to these microbes, we have a much higher chance of developing health issues such as asthma.
Whether or not the researchers can develop a cure for asthma, one thing has been made very clear: we weren’t meant to live sterilized lives. We actually need to be exposed to bacterial DNA and other microbes that are found outside so our immune systems can properly develop.
I think it likely that the reason asthma rates in children are increasing so much is that they spend so little time playing outside. There are two main reasons for this that I can see. The first is the continual urbanization of areas, which denies children the opportunity to play in a natural setting, and keeps them away from soil and its many microbes. The second is the ever-increasing prevalence of indoor screen activities (watching television or movies, playing video games, browsing the internet, and using social media), which have replaced outdoor activities by providing entertainment and socializing aspects without the physical demands of sports and other outdoor activities.
Kids need to spend more time outside and less time in front of a screen if they’re going to be healthy.
Parents are often fine with the fact that their children aren’t spending much time playing in the dirt and mud. One reason is that their clothes are easier to clean that way, but another, more valid reason is that it would make sense, intuitively, that spending more time in a non-hygienic environment would be less healthy. It turns out that the opposite is true, though; kids need to spend time out and about for their immune systems to develop and work properly.
We now know that microbes help prevent asthma. What else might be solved if kids simply played outside more?