The farm effect.

More than ever, I have heard more people say they, or their kids, are allergic to unusual things. Peanuts. Tomatoes. Fish.  Odors of food. Plants and animals. Room temperature food. And heaven forbid – Chocolate.

An NPR article posted today shows the research that the issues with more and more kids becoming allergic to food is two to five times higher than it was 30 years ago. As these researchers are trying to understand why, they’re increasingly looking at kids who grow up on farms.

The leading theory behind the uptick in childhood allergies, says Andy Nish, a physician with a private practice in Gainesville, Ga., is the hygiene hypothesis.

Paradoxically, the theory goes, we’re too clean.

One of Nish’s patients, Casey, has a host of allergic diseases, including hay fever, asthma, and eczema that’s gotten milder as he’s aged. Casey’s other allergies include dust mites, cats, and certain grasses and weeds. The hygiene hypothesis suggests that Casey’s immune system never learned how to deal with those natural substances – hence the allergies. And the theory is bolstered by evidence from farms.

Studies show children who live on farms have low rates of allergies. Dr. Mark Holbreich, an allergist in Indianapolis and a fellow of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, calls it,

 "the farm effect."

Holbreich recently did a study, published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, which found very low rates of allergies among Amish children living on farms in Indiana. He says the reason may be because the children get exposed very early on to dirty environments, and to a variety of dust and germs. Even young kids are often in the barn, working with animals, and drinking raw milk.

STOP! I do not advocate drinking raw milk – and neither does Holbreich. Even though some research has shown that drinking the milk raw helps boost the immune system, Holbreich cautions against drinking raw milk or serving it to your child. It contains too many dangerous, disease-causing bacteria. If you grew up drinking it – your body get’s used to it and you can handle the bacteria. But those who want to go purchase raw milk for it’s help benefits – don’t think about it. Milk from the grocery store is much safer as it has been through the pasteurization process to kill harmful bacteria, but is still safe to drink.

Back to allergies and the farm, for those who didn’t grow up on the farm, don’t get depressed if you have allergies. Thanks to modern medicine, the closest thing to a cure is an allergy shot – that is, injections of the actual allergic substance. They’re given in small doses to sneak it past the immune system and slowly build up the body’s tolerance to the substances that cause allergies, according to Nish. After a few months, allergies are usually under control. And, after a few years, patients can usually stop the shots altogether.

In today’s media containing stories about agriculture, it’s refreshing to hear a positive one about growing up on the farm. I guess I can say I’m proud to be “dirty”!

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