Clues to Curing Allergies

Environmental exposures are more than just allergy triggers: Evidence shows they can help the body build up its immunity.

It’s no secret that allergies and environment go hand in hand. Dust in the air may make you sneeze. Peanuts in your trail mix could send you into anaphylactic shock. Everything we come in contact with is a possible threat — a chance for our bodies to rebel.

But increasingly, evidence shows that environmental exposure is more than just an allergy trigger: It can also help the body develop its own protective barrier.

“[Studies] highlight the importance of environment, beginning, it seems, in the womb,” writes Moises Velasquez-Manoff, a science writer and the author of “An Epidemic of Absence” in the New York Times. “Microbes are one intriguing protective factor. Certain ones seem to stimulate a mother’s immune system during pregnancy, preventing allergic disease in children.”

Velasquez also points to Indiana’s Amish people — “remarkably free of allergies and asthma” despite their proximity to tree pollens and other allergens — as an example of a community where protective microbes occurred “spontaneously.”

“This invulnerability isn’t likely to be genetic … The working hypothesis is that innocuous cowshed microbes, plant material and raw milk protect farming children by favorably stimulating their immune systems throughout life, particularly early on,” Velasquez-Manoff writes.

Other interesting tidbits from the essay:

  • “Farms with the greatest array of microbes, including fungi, appear to be the most protective against asthma.”
  • “In one study, they showed that an infant’s risk of eczema was inverse to the microbial load in her mother’s mattress.”
  • “Children born to mothers who work with livestock while pregnant, and who lug their newborns along during chores, seem the most invulnerable to allergic disease later.”
  • “[Research] suggests that farming mothers might benefit from a naturally occurring immunotherapy, one that preprograms the developing fetus against allergic disease.”
  • “Some studies indicate that if you grow up in an urban environment, occasional visits to the farm may exacerbate allergic propensities.”
  • “Young adults who began farming (with livestock) were less likely to develop new allergic sensitivities than rural peers who chose other professions. Existing allergies didn’t disappear. Rather, the farming environment seemed to prevent new sensitizations.”
  • “In Europe, the consumption of unpasteurized milk has repeatedly correlated with protection against allergic disease.”

While the writer doesn’t recommend that anyone run off to the nearest farm or begin drinking raw milk, the new research does signal hope for a cure.

Tell us: Do you suffer from allergies? Do you see a link between your environmental exposure and your allergies? Leave a comment below or tweet us @experiencelife.

Maggie Fazeli Fard is an Experience Life staff writer.

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