Modern Living & Our Immune System

  • Nasal allergies, food allergies and allergic asthma are all disorders of the immune system. Our immune system is supposed to keep us safe from harm by fighting off infection, cancer, and other invaders. Unfortunately, in allergic disease, the immune system misreads the cues and ends up stimulating a reaction -- or overreaction -- that actually results in us feeling worse than we did to begin with.


    Experts have been noting over the past couple of decades that allergic disease is on the rise, not only in children, but also adults, even older adults. And not just in the U.S., but throughout the world. In fact, some say that allergies and asthma have reached epidemic proportions. Whether that is true or not, one thing is certain -- more and more people are developing allergies all the time.

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    And now, experts are seeing similar jumps in the number of people with lupus, multiple sclerosis, inflammatory bowel disease, type 1 diabetes and other immune system disorders. So they're wondering if there is some common factor in today's world that is harming our immune system functioning.


    Scientists want to know why. Some have theorized that climate change has something to do with it. Others have postulated that the pollution of our environment is at the root of the growth in allergy numbers.


    A recent article in the Washington Post suggests that modern living may have something to do with immune system problems. A couple factors they say may have an influence:

    • Due to advances in technology, transportation, etc., more people are exposed to different environments & different products all the time. So there are a lot more opportunities to develop sensitivities.

    • Life in developed countries is more antiseptic than it used to be, which might be having a negative impact on the immune system. Because we're exposed to less parasites, viruses and bacteria than in the past, it may be that our immune systems no longer know how to tell the difference between friend and foe.

    Experts say that the fact that allergic disease is growing much faster in developed countries, where conditions are "better," supports the hygiene theory. But other researchers poke holes in those beliefs, pointing to the fact that asthma tends to be most common in the inner city, where children are exposed much more to allergens such as cockroaches and mice.


    Other theories to explain the explosion of immune system disorders include:

    • Exposure to fine articles in air pollution gives the immune system more of a hair trigger.
    • Obesity and non-active lifestyles are involved.
    • Eating more processed foods and / or changes in the balance of the nutrients we're ingesting are affecting us.

    So what does all this mean for the average person with allergies? Well, not a whole lot -- today. But it is the basis for a lot of new research, and that's exciting to contemplate. Hopefully, in the not too distant future, we're going to have some effective insights into risk factors, as well as treatment, or even cures, of allergies, asthma, and other immune system diseases.


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    For instance, some research is exposing subjects to small amount of common food allergens, in an attempt to train the immune system to respond appropriately, rather than overreacting.


    Another study is looking at introducing microscopic parasitic worms (yuck!) into the digestive tract to calm the immune system, a treatment that has stimulated significant improvement in people with Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis.


    We live in interesting times, and I suspect even more interesting times lie ahead.

Published On: May 14, 2008