TED Conversations

Anna Crist

student researcher , University of Oregon

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Purell now, Bacteri-ell later?

The hygiene hypothesis, the idea that “too much cleanliness prevents the development of a well-balanced immune response”(Sironi and Clerici, 2010), has received a lot of support and also criticism. It has recently been challenged by the hypothesis of “early immune challenge”, which states that a lack of appropriate immune stimulation during early childhood might account for the increased development of allergies in industrialized countries (Kramer et al, 2013). This proposal places less emphasis on excessive hygienic practices and focuses more on the insufficient exposure to specific environmental microbes, particularly those from non-urban environments, as the reason behind the rise of atopic disease. While different, both hypotheses point to the beneficial health affects of some microbes.

What do you think is the reason for increased allergy levels in industrialized countries? Do you think that a concoction of the “right” microbial species in the form of a lotion, drink, or inhalant (aka "Bacteri-ell") could be a future replacement for natural exposure to beneficial microbes?
Instead of using hand sanitizers like Purell, do you see a future where people from some regions of the world are unsanitizing their hands with “Bacteri-ell”?


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    Apr 30 2013: The hygiene hypothesis and the early immune challenge bring up important points about our immune system development and the necessity for introduction of bacteria and allergens to build up an immunity. The increased allergy levels seen in industrialized countries is directly related to the excessive cleanliness in these areas. Certain airborne allergens are known to bind a specific antibody class, the IgE class, in the body which leads to the inflammation associated with an allergy attack. By introducing allergens at an early age by spending time outdoors the body becomes accustomed to these allergens by slowly building up the body's major IgG antibody class. After building up this form of acquired immunity the body no longer reacts in the same way to those allergens due to a major reduction in IgE antibody binding and subsequent mast cell stimulation leading to a histamine type allergy reaction. I know this process too well from my personal experiences with seasonal allergies. I was born and lived the first 5 years of my life in a high altitude desert of Arizona where very few types of allergen producing plants and animals lived. It was also very hot with intense sunlight so I spent most of my time indoors and didn't get exposed to many airborne allergens. Once my family and I moved to Oregon, the so-called "grass seed capital of the world", I had somewhat severe seasonal allergies. My body was in a sense over-reacting to airborne allergies it had not previously encountered. I eventually had enough and decided to go through allergy shots which slowly introduced increasingly concentrated amounts of these allergens into my body so it could develop the normal immune response which was absent from spending my baby and toddler years in an excessively clean environment. After a few years I no longer had any allergies to the life in Oregon. This demonstrates pretty clearly that introduction to bacteria and allergens at a young age is crucial for a good immune system.

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