Researchers have been taking a close look at the immune system of people living in today's cleaner modern society. One effect they have found is that rates of depression in younger people have steadily grown to outnumber rates of depression in the older populations; this may be because of a loss of healthy bacteria.
Neuroscientists say there is mounting evidence that changes in modern hygiene have caused disruptions in ancient relationships with microorganisms in soil, food and the gut -- and that these disruptions may contribute to the increasing rates of depression.
"... [T]he modern world has become so clean, we are deprived of the bacteria our immune systems came to rely on over long ages to keep inflammation at bay ... [P]eople with depression, even those who are not sick, have higher levels of inflammation".
The hygiene hypothesis – the theory that early exposure to dirt and germs programs your immune system to properly identify threats – has been gaining slow but steady support over the past decade.
According to this theory, if you're healthy, exposure to bacteria and viruses can serve as "natural vaccines" that strengthen your immune system and provide long-lasting immunity against disease.
This is in stark contrast to being vaccinated against a particular pathogen, as vaccines impart only partial and short-term immunity at best.
The natural immunity you get from being exposed to environmental pathogens is typically also a far safer option than mercury-laden and adjuvanted vaccines, which may cause far more health problems than health benefits.
Children were in fact never meant to be locked in a sealed, airtight room, isolated from life. They're designed to run outside, play, be active -- and to get dirty and encounter potentially infectious agents.
This would seem like common sense, but in today's world of conveniences and savvy marketing, many have been brainwashed into treating dirt as enemy number one. There's an antibacterial solution for every area of your life and advertisements constantly promote their use. Ditto for antibiotics, which are grossly overused.
This over-zealous avoidance of bacteria and viruses comes at a steep price.
Health problems already associated with the hygiene hypothesis include:
Now neuroscientists claim depression can be added to the list.
Hygiene Hypothesis Now Linked to Depression
Based on the results from a meta-analysis published in the December issue of Archives of General Psychiatry, there's "mounting evidence that disruptions in ancient relationships with microorganisms in soil, food and the gut may contribute to the increasing rates of depression," Emory University states in its press release.
What's the connection between depression and early exposure to pathogens?
In a word: inflammation.
"Since ancient times benign microorganisms, sometimes referred to as 'old friends,' have taught your immune system how to tolerate other harmless microorganisms, and in the process, reduce inflammatory responses that have been linked to the development of most modern illnesses, from cancer to depression," neuroscientist Charles Raison explains.
Quite simply, if you're too clean, you deprive yourself of the exposure to bacteria that your body needs in order to program itself to keep inflammation at bay.
According to the press release, scientists are currently experimenting to see whether or not exposure to benign microorganisms can improve "emotional tolerance" and relieve depression. If the results are positive, new treatments that include re-exposure to environmental microorganisms may become part of future treatment strategies for depression.
Until then, I urge you to take the hygiene hypothesis into consideration by reducing your reliance on antibacterial products, vaccines, and antibiotics.
As for treating depression, there are a number of natural treatment strategies that are both safer and more effective than the conventional drug route. For more information, please see this previous article.
Inflammation is Also Hallmark of Heart Disease
Interestingly, depression is also associated with heart disease. In fact, the risk of heart disease is doubled in people with depression, and heart disease has also been linked to the hygiene hypothesis.
One 2005 study found that children who caught viral infections early on could reduce their later risk of heart disease by a whopping 90 percent! This could be yet another factor behind the explosion of heart disease in the 20th century.
The study found a consistent link between the number of childhood infections and reduced coronary risk:
- Two viral infections reduced risk by 40 percent
- Four infections by 60 percent
- Six infections resulted in a 90 percent reduction in risk
Protect Your Immune System by Exposing Yourself to Germs
The world you live in today is not the place your body was meant to live in. You were meant to have regular contact with dirt and everything in it. When you do so, especially growing up as a child, it trains your immune system to function correctly.
Simply speaking, your immune system is composed of two main systems that work together to protect you from foreign invaders:
- Th1 lymphocytes – Specialized white blood cells that assault infected cells throughout your body
- Th2 lymphocytes – Another type of white blood cells that produce antibodies against dangerous microbes. These antibodies block invading pathogens from invading your cells in the first place. The Th2 system also drives allergic responses to foreign organisms
At birth, an infant's immune system appears to rely primarily on the Th2 system. But the hygiene hypothesis suggests that your Th1 system can only grow stronger if it's exercised, either through fighting infections or through encounters with certain harmless microbes.
Without such stimulation, your Th1 system withers while your Th2 system flourishes. As a result of this imbalance your immune system will tend to react with allergic responses more easily.
This is the basic premise behind the connection between the hygiene hypothesis and increasing allergy rates.
What Can You Do?
If you are a parent, please realize that the future of your child's immune system is in your hands. You can help it build up the resistance it needs by:
- Letting your child be a child. Allow your kids to play outside and get dirty
- Not using antibacterial soaps and other antibacterial household products. Simple soap and water is all you need when washing your hands. The antibacterial chemicals (typically triclosan) are quite toxic and not at all good to be exposed to. If they kill bacteria they aren’t helping your healthy cells any.
- Avoiding unnecessary antibiotics. Remember that viral infections are impervious to antibiotics, as antibiotics only work on bacterial infections
- Serving locally grown or organic meats that do not contain antibiotics
- Educating yourself on the pros and cons of vaccines and making informed decisions about their use