A study led by Indianapolis allergist Dr. Mark Hobreich, recently found that incidences of asthma and allergies among Amish children raised in rural farms in Northern Indiana are lower even than among Swedish rural families, a group traditionally known for low allergy rates.
The “farm effect” is nothing new, but this study is a first in the U.S., and raises new questions and possible answers regarding why Amish children in these areas have asthma rates of just 5%, compared to nearly 10% of children nationwide who have asthma (and 11.2% of Swiss control studies).
“The going theory is this early exposure to the diverse potential allergens and pathogens on a farm trains the immune system to recognize them, but not overreact to the harmless ones.” ( Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, online April 16, 2012.)
“By sanitizing our homes of dirt and all its commensurate organic matter, goes the theory, we’ve inadvertently rid ourselves of an important ally: bacteria… Uninhibited by their natural microbial enemies, molds and chitin-bearing insects are able to run amok in our homes and their discarded chitin (and other allergy causing components) are better able to wreak havoc on our immune systems.” (p 45)
Certainly no one stopped me from playing in the dirt when I was I kid – actually, it was where they preferred me! And to this day, even though I seem to write about allergies to a disproportionate degree, I don’t really seem to have any. Similarly, my outdoorsy daughter, who has always been happier on a trail in the woods than anywhere else, also never seems to have hay fever or related allergies.
Obviously it’s hard to draw any hard or fast conclusions from a short report on a very genetically and physically isolated community. But the fact is that immunotherapy, the preferred treatment for many chronic allergies, consists in the long term application of small amounts of the item to which one is allergic, thereby building immunity to allergen. So it only stands to reason that if children build up these immunities early in their lives – by being, playing and working outside from an early age – they might have fewer adulthood allergies to contend with later.
And that doesn’t even take into consideration the overall health and well being that comes from being outdoors in the first place – everything from reduced childhood obesity to improved environmental awareness, creativity, and the ability to self-direct.
So yeah, there might be a few germs out there – but sometimes you need ’em! Now tell the kids it’s okay to go out and get good and dirty. It’s just what the doctor ordered!