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Friday, 01 February 2013

The Hygiene Hypothesis—Farm Germs Might Be the Best Medicine

By Dan Gogerty who blogs at Cast

The flu epidemic became a news epidemic this winter and several outlets have highlighted immunity and prevention techniques. An ABC News video and other - media outlets grabbed onto a suggestion that has received some attention — they point out that growing up on a farm is a boost to your immune system. And if you don’t feed chickens or slop the hogs, simply hanging out with pets can help build resistance to allergies and maybe diseases.

New research suggests that farm kids have fewer allergies than city kids do and the hygiene hypothesis might demonstrate why. According to some experts, we’re too clean nowadays. Our immune systems protect us by learning how to fight bacteria and other invaders. We need to “get down and dirty.”

I’m a bit skeptical of this theory but because of my upbringing, I want to believe it. Raised on a Midwest farm a long time ago - in a galaxy far, far away - my brothers and I were the perfect study group for the “unhygienic theory.”

About the time JFK was asking the country to ask not, we were exposing ourselves to just about any germ that had ever heard of central Iowa.

During summer - before we were old enough to do much farm work - mom would open the screen door after breakfast, letting us out and a few flies in. Dad and his brother ran the traditional corn, soybeans, pigs, and cattle farm, but in reality, it was a 400-acre magic kingdom for my brothers, cousins and me.

The creeks, barns, pastures and groves provided the types of playgrounds no modern designer could match. And even though we never thought of it, these places must have been crawling with enough germs to make a bacteriologist drool.

During a typical day, we might crawl through poison ivy, build dams in murky stream water and run through clouds of ragweed pollen. Our kid quests would take us under rusty barbed wire fences, through tick infested groves and across pastures laden with fresh cow pies hidden in the grass.

By lunchtime, one of the gang had been stung by a bee, stabbed by a fish hook or hit in the back with a mud pie.

We didn’t call it locavore food back then but the hearty noon meal gave us a few minutes to pick cockleburs out of our socks and flick a few garden peas at a brother when the folks weren’t looking.

For their part, Mom and Dad would take a head count, tell us to be safe and then release us hounds again after the 12:30PM cartoon show was over.

We’d had the usual school vaccinations and in those days, the folks might “cleanse us” with deworming medicine or take us in for a tetanus booster shot if we stepped on something nasty in the creek.

By the time we returned to the house each summer day, Mom could shake the dust off our overalls but we had spent the hours as host organisms in a rural petri dish, so I imagine a half billion or so germs stayed attached.

After supper, we slid out into the yard where we played ball or set up miniature farms in the dirt. The barn cats scratched around with us and my brothers occasionally shared their tootsie roll pops with our dog, Smoky. By the time the mosquitoes let up and the lightning bugs started flashing low along the grass, we knew it was time to go in.

I really don’t know if we farm kids ended up with fewer allergies and illness but if having fun is a way to immunize yourself from disease, then we had a heavy dose of some powerful medicine.

Dan Gogerty with sheep at the fair


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Posted by Ronni Bennett at 05:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post

Comments

Dan:
Finely written retrospective.

When I was a kid back in the late 40's, although I didn't live on a farm, I was outside all day, wandering and having fun, either with friends or alone, and I agree; although it's not based on any "studies," I became friends with a lot of germs who might have been my enemies today.

Like you Dan, I as a young girl survived living with germs from cuts on my feet from going barefoot at the beach, covered with old oyster shells, broken bottles and trash to swimming in polluted ponds etc. but the fun I had with my many cousins outwitted the germs and we were as healthy a bunch of kids one could imagine.

I hope we all last long enough to see some studies done about all this..it is shocking the numbers of people, who have food allergies..I guess I know it is the vast amount of preservatives everything gets sprayed and packed with..many of us also actually got measles, mumps,
whooping cough, etc and the world hadn't entered the handiwipes and sterile era as yet...I envy all you country mice, my only forays were via the Herald Tribune Fresh Air Fund in the late forties, early fifties..on farms in Pennsylvania, it was glorious two weeks away from NYC..aside from polio epidemic, I can't recall health scare, ah, the BOMB of course, lurked over all of us..good times..

I too am skeptical of the theory about farm life boosting your immune system. Back in the day, many children living on farms or in cities died of whooping cough, tetanus, and polio.

And children differ in their reaction to poison ivy. My daughter got a very bad reaction when she was 8 years old. It spread to her face and eyes and made her feel completely miserable.

When she started to get a bit better, she still looked as if someone had beaten her up. I remember the looks I got when we were out in public. People would see her poor swollen face and look at me as if I were a horribly abusive parent.

Nice article Dan. I was a city kid but I spent a year on a farm with a foster family. I don't know if it had an effect on my immune system, but I will agree that we are a little too sterile these days. And may I add, there is a nauseating over-emphasis on safety.

Maybe happiness is the answer or maybe being active and outside most of the time is the answer to good health. My sisters and I always prided ourselves in having perfect attendance records at school.

Like the other kids raised on farms, I traipsed all over and got into everything. When I went off to college and then worked in the city for 20 years, I suffered often with lung ailments. Now that I live in a rural town, I haven't had bronchitis for since I left the city. I, too, hope a study or two is done on this topic.

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