Is being clean making us sick?

In the past two decades, doctors have noticed a significant increase in the number of children and adults with allergies.

How can that be? We are more informed than ever about the importance of good hygiene. We make sure our kids wash their hands. We carry hand sanitizer everywhere we go and stock up on anti-bacterial cleaners. So why has the prevalence of allergic conditions increased?

The answer may lie in our solution: Too much cleaning and sanitizing.

It’s all about those microbes

Every one of us has a layer of microbes living on and in our bodies, and many of these microbes are actually beneficial, supporting our body’s normal functions.

A diverse microbial environment, which we accumulate through exposure to germs and dirt, helps us develop a protective layer against allergies and other autoimmune diseases (like inflammatory bowel disorder).

The “hygiene hypothesis”

According to Maria Garcia-Lloret, MD, assistant clinical professor of allergy and immunology at UCLA, zealous washing and sanitizing can interfere with the “good microbes” that regulate our allergic response. This type of vigorous cleaning creates a less diverse microbial environment, and the fewer microbes we have, the more prone we are to allergies and inflammatory bowel disease.

In fact, before the hygiene hypothesis had a name, a British researcher observed that younger siblings were less allergy prone than older siblings. This researcher suggested that the younger siblings benefited from all the germs their older siblings brought home, which gave them protection against allergies.

Wait! Don’t throw out your soap!

While the hygiene hypothesis is worth exploring, so far, no practical advice has come from it, says UCLA pediatric pulmonologist Sande Okelo, MD, PhD. At this point, there is no therapy, medication or lifestyle changes that doctors advise in line with the hygiene hypothesis.

So don’t go seeking germ-filled environments to roll around in and definitely do not stop washing your hands. Hand washing is still an easy, cheap and effective way to prevent a wide variety of infections and illnesses. So how we can apply the hygiene hypothesis in our lives?

Take some probiotics

Taking probiotics – live microbes that are added to foods, medications and dietary supplements – is one practical recommendation that doctors have started to make. Probiotics can safely increase the good microbes in your body.

Some doctors recommend that pregnant women who have allergies or asthma take probiotics in the second half of pregnancy to reduce the likelihood of eczema in their babies. In addition, some doctors recommend giving probiotics to breastfeeding infants who are at high risk for allergies.

Consult with your healthcare provider before you or your child begins taking probiotics.

To learn more, visit Mattel Children’s Hospital UCLA’s Pediatric Allergy and Immunology department.

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