In the US people have allergies to many things, the most common ones being pollen, dust mites, mold, wasps and bees, cats and dogs, industrial and household chemicals, and foods such as milk, nuts, and eggs. Growing up in Sri Lanka, I cannot remember anyone in my family or friends who had allergies, apart from a very few people who had asthma and thus had occasional breathing problems. No one seemed to have the need to avoid foods and plants, apart from varying degrees of lactose intolerance.
But after I came to the US, I found that many people, including my own daughters and the children of other Sri Lankan immigrants, have allergies to all manner of things suggesting, at least on an anecdotal level, that these are due to environmental factors. I used to wonder about what might be going on. So this article was interesting. They compared the types and numbers of bacteria living on the skin, guts, and homes of families living in the west with those living in very rural areas in the developing world.
The results were incredible. Like most of us in the Western world, the families had far fewer types of bacteria living in and on them when compared with people in traditional tribes in parts of the developing world. One hunter-gatherer community was found to not only have a higher diversity of bacteria, but only one in 1,500 suffered from an allergy – compared with one in three in the UK.
The article goes on to suggest that children in the west spend far too little time outdoors, and thus do not get exposed as infants and children to the many bacteria that can defend them against allergens.
As Horizon tracked the movements of the two families over 24 hours, it discovered that they spent on average 91% of their days indoors – a pattern reflected across the UK. As our lives become increasingly sedentary we miss out on the vast array of bacteria that lurk in our gardens and waft through the air.
So, arguably, the easiest thing for all of us to do to reduce our chances of becoming allergic is to go outside. Whether it is walking the dog or strolling to school, the evidence suggests that being outside and taking a good deep breath of fresh air is good for you.
One study has even found that if you have more plants and flowers around your house you are not only more likely to have a diverse array of bacteria on your skin, you are also less likely to be allergic.
So the best thing for us to do might be to encourage children to play a lot outside in the dirt.