Hygiene hypothesis: We’re not smart enough, but go ahead, the importance of infants’ exposure to microorganisms

In the 25 years I’ve been doing the food safety thing, the most frequent question is, don’t bugs make us stronger? Aren’t we too clean.?

These are referrals to the hygiene hypothesis, that the Western world has become too clean for our infants, a little dirt won’t hurt you, throw knowledge out the window, because nature is true (my grandson announced the impending birth of a sibling this morning on facebook; my daughter does not buy into this shit).

Jane Brody of The New York Times writes that many studies have strongly suggested that the trillions of microorganisms that inhabit the human body influence our current and future health and may account for the rising incidence of several serious medical conditions now plaguing Americans, young and old.

The research indicates that cesarean deliveries and limited breast-feeding can distort the population of microorganisms in a baby’s gut and may explain the unchecked rise of worrisome health problems in children and adults, including asthma, allergies, celiac disease, Type 1 diabetes and obesity. These conditions, among others, are more likely to occur when an infant’s gut has been inadequately populated by health-promoting bacteria.

A growing number of researchers and consumers are now paying more attention to where it all begins, especially how this huge population of microbes in our bodies, called the microbiome, is affected, for good or bad, by how babies are born and nourished.

As this still-evolving information trickles down to prospective mothers, it could — and perhaps should — lead to profound changes in obstetrics, pediatrics and parenting. The two most important would be fewer scheduled cesarean deliveries and more mothers breast-feeding exclusively for six months to enhance the kinds and amounts of bacteria that inhabit an infant’s gut.

(The daughter mentioned above was breast-fed for something ridiculous like 17 months.)

These organisms perform important functions that include digesting unused nutrients, producing vitamins, stimulating normal immune development, countering harmful bacteria and fostering maturation of the gut.

The story and the studies cited have lots of anectodal information – Sorenne and I had a brief chat about the difference between anectode and science over breakfast this a.m. – but do nothing to advance the germs-are-good-for-you-theory, other than it feels right.

Until one of your kids is the genetically susceptible one to succumb.

Science can do better.

It’s just not there yet.