Can you be too clean?
Is it possible to be too hygienic? The answer may be yes. In fact, having some microbes on the skin may protect young children against developing allergies.
The hygiene hypothesis
The “hygiene hypothesis” refers to the idea that exposing babies and young children to germs and microorganisms can help build their immune systems, preventing the development of allergies and asthma.
This hypothesis has evolved with a better understanding of the microbiome, or the microorganisms in your body that influence your health.
Humans are awash in microorganisms, especially on our skin and in our guts. While some microorganisms can cause infections, others support normal bodily functions, help with immunity and contribute to overall well-being.
If you disrupt the microbial environment, you may interfere with the good microorganisms that contribute to your health. Generally, the more diverse the microbiome, the better.
Researchers think that babies and young children who live in very clean environments have a less diverse microbiome and may be more likely to develop allergies, allergic skin conditions and autoimmune disorders such as inflammatory bowel disease.
What parents can do
To help encourage a diverse microbiome and healthy immune system in children, parents can try the following:
- Let your kids play in dirt. One recent study found that children who were exposed to barnyard dust rich in microorganisms from farm animals had lower prevalence of asthma than children who were not exposed to this dust. Even if you don’t live on a farm, playing in dirt will still expose children to microorganisms that encourage a healthy immune system.
- Offer children healthy foods. Give children plant-based foods, including whole grains, fruits and vegetables because good microorganisms in the gut thrive on fiber. Lean sources of protein, such as fish and poultry, and healthy fats, such as olive oil and avocado, can also promote a healthy gut microbiome.
- Use probiotics if you’re pregnant and have allergies or asthma. Recently, the World Allergy Organization (WAO) issued guidelines stating that pregnant women with allergies or asthma can consider taking probiotics — live microbes that can be formulated into many different types of products, including foods, drugs and dietary supplements — in the second half of pregnancy to help reduce the incidence of eczema in their babies.
- Breastfeed babies who are at higher risk for allergies. Infants with a parent or sibling with an allergy have a 20 to 30 percent risk of also developing an allergy, according to the WAO.
- Talk to your pediatric allergist. If you’re concerned about allergies in your child, contact UCLA Health’s Division or Pediatric Allergy & Immunology. Our specialists can help you develop strategies for creating a healthier microbiome in your child and managing any allergies.