Old Friends: The Hygiene Hypothesis

Old Friends: The Hygiene Hypothesis post image

Our western civilized world is in the midst of an autoimmune crisis. We have so successfully scrubbed and sanitized our world, that we are exposed to much fewer microorganisms than our ancestors. The Hygiene Hypothesis proposes that our immune system evolved in circumstances that allowed it to be exposed to many different microorganisms, some benign, some not. These constant and continuous exposures challenged the immune system to evolve and develop properly. With the relatively sudden drop in these exposures, the immune system cannot develop properly and autoimmunity and inflammation are the consequences.

The Hygiene Hypothesis is born

In a study published in the Lancet in 2001, it was reported that children in large families and especially those that grew up on farms were less likely to develop hayfever. It was postulated that early exposure/infection with the multitude of microorganisms one would find on a farm, and also from other siblings, would diminish the incidence of hayfever.

In 2002, a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that children exposed to endotoxin (microbial components) develop a tolerance to external allergens — that is, they were protected against allergies and asthma.

A study published in Science in 2002, found that long term helminth infection induced elevation of anti-inflammatory cytokines and this was inversely correlated to allergy. In other words, long term helminth infection resulted in fewer allergies.

With sanitation and sterilization come autoimmunity

It makes perfect sense to me. With modern hygienic practices like refrigeration (that removed the need to ferment foods and ingest beneficial bacteria that way), sterile drinking water, modern housing and sanitation systems, and certainly antibiotics (that kill all the flora in the intestine, not just the trouble makers), we have removed many sources of microorganisms, both beneficial and disease causing.

Allergies, inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s, ulcerative colitis and celiac) and other autoimmune diseases are much more common in the western world as compared to third world countries. People in third world countries may suffer from acute microbial induced diseases like, cholera and dengue fever, but they do not suffer from chronic inflammatory and degenerative diseases like MS or inflammatory bowel disease.

We are walking ecosystems

A study published in 2009 in Immunology, demonstrated that we do indeed coexist with microorganisms and our immune system has been shaped by them. It suggests that the most important class of organisms, in terms of their impact on us, are helminths. That they in particular have driven the evolution of the human immune system. In fact, this paper suggests that we have been shaped in fundamental ways by coevolution with helminths.

Because of modern sanitation and technology we have eliminating typhoid and cholera and have saved millions of lives, since sewers and clean drinking water were introduced in North American and Western Europe.  But in doing so, we contributed to the rise of the modern diseases involving immune dysregulation, like multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s, ulcerative colitis, Graves disease, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, Type I diabetes, asthma, allergy, celiac disease, and Sjogren’s syndrome to name just a few.

We have many different types of organisms living with us — that have been there for over 10,000 years. They include the commensal and pseudo-commensals such as lactobacilli, many actinomycetes species as well as mycobacteria.

What are the helminths?

These organisms that used to live symbiotically inside our intestines, but have been eradicated due to modern living, are, in fact, worms. Now don’t feel disgusted — you won’t see them, mainly because they are not there. But emerging scientific investigations of helminths provides us with some information as to their importance. My goal is that by the end of this post you will feel very friendly towards these worms and you may even be inclined to call them old friends.

Modern life has damaged the global ecosystem as well as the individual ecosystem

All of our advances in technology and modern living have damaged our global ecosystem. We are losing rain forest at an alarming rate, species are becoming extinct, there is global warming and acid rain.

We have done the same type of damage to our inner ecological systems. We do not get beneficial bacteria in our food due to refrigeration. We do not get exposures to worms because we do not walk barefoot on the ground due to shoes, cement sidewalks and roads. (We also do not get the benefit of being grounded — but that is another post).

Autoimmunity and inflammation go hand in hand. The immune system over reacts to what is perceived as a “foreign invader”. Through the release of chemical messages, the troops (white blood cells) are called to respond to the invasion. In the case of autoimmunity, the troops mistakenly attack normal tissues and T regulatory cells are not doing their job of controlling the attack. Inflammation and tissue damage is a consequence.

What do the worms do?

The helminths seem to drive activation of the regulatory parts of the immune system. They can affect regulatory dendritic cells, regulatory macrophases and regulatory type T cells and cytokines.

Helminths induce a strong TH2 response with cytokines IL10, IL4 and IL5. These cytokines activate macrophages in a different way from a TH1 response. The TH2 response balances the TH1 response and thus prevents inflammation from developing.

Inflammatory bowel disease

There are several mechanisms of action from the helminths that are currently being studied. They all appear to protect lab mice and rats from induced colitis. These animal models exhibiting IBD appear to be protected by several species of helminths.

It has been postulated that the helminths secrete substances that affect immune system cells such as the dendritic cells.

It has also been suggested that helminths rapidly shift the abundance and distribution of some intestinal bacteria. There is a prominent increase in the lactobaccillus family with helminth infection. Various bacterial species within this group of organisms have been shown to decrease intestinal inflammation in murine models of colitis.

Multiple Sclerosis

Patients with MS who have helminth infections (e.g., Trichuris trichiura and/or, Ascaris lumbricoides, Strongyloides stercoralis, and others) have a milder disease course compared to MS patients without helminths.

It has also been shown that this protection is immune cell mediated.

Type 1 Diabetes

Therapeutic trials using helminth exposure in patients with Type 1 diabetes are planned but not yet completed. For several years, laboratories have studied the effect of helminths on T1D using animal models of autoimmune diabetes with the non obese diabetic (NOD) mouse. These studies have been very promising.

Rheumatoid Arthritis

There are no published clinical trials of helminth exposure in patients with rheumatoid arthritis, but the effect of helminths on arthritis has been tested in animal models of this disease. Infection of these mice with bacteria aggravates arthritis, while infection with a helminth (H. polygyrus bakeri or Nippostrongylus brasiliensis) reduces the incidence of arthritis and the degree of synovial hyperplasia.

 Allergies and Asthma

While allergies and asthma result from a strong TH2 response, helminths still appear to down regulate this TH2 atopic disease.

Many epidemiological studies support the hypothesis that helminth exposure suppresses atopy, as measured by skin reaction to injected allergens. A study in Gabon showed that children infected with helminths were less likely to react to dust mite allergens than children without the helminths infection.

Helmiths as an emerging therapeutic modality

Clearly, there is plenty of research studying this exciting emerging therapy. It is conceivable that these organisms modulate host immunity through release of immune regulatory products or by display of regulatory molecules. It is also possible that some helminths, release substances that indirectly modulate host immunity through altering the composition of our complex intestinal microflora as noted above.

Stay tuned for more information about the emerging therapeutic modality of helminthic therapy, human trials with helminthic therapy and the movers and shakers in this exciting new field.

Are you now viewing helminthic therapy in a better light? Are you getting excited about this emerging therapeutic modality? I know I am! Leave a comment and let me know!


Related articles:

The AutoImmune Crisis: What To Do About It

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Leave a Comment

  • Tina April 12, 2012, 9:22 am

    What can we do to make sure we have a beneficial helminth “infection”?

    • Jill April 12, 2012, 12:17 pm

      Hi Tina,
      You most likely do not have a helminth infection. You have to deliberately seek one out.

  • Niki April 12, 2012, 9:52 am

    Fascinating! I’m curious as to where enterobius vermicularis (pinworm) falls in all of this. Are there benefits to this helminth as well??

    • Jill April 12, 2012, 12:18 pm

      Hi Niki,
      I’m not sure if pinworms are therapeutic — don’t think they have been studied.

  • Janelle April 12, 2012, 10:02 am

    I would say to just be careful with parasitic infections, they are associated with low total cholesterol and with that increased risk of mortality especially in other countries and tribal communities. (http://perfecthealthdiet.com/?p=4021) But I would guess a lot of people have these infections and don’t even know it. I just read about a girl who is on the Paleo diet who found out she has trichuris and some other infections and her only symptom is constipation. As long as cholesterol remains high enough, these infections would not pose a problem. “Normal immune function is associated with TC around 200 mg/dl or higher ” Dr Paul Jaminet

    But in other areas of the world where hygiene is abysmal they have low life expectancy due to infections like these.

    • Jill April 12, 2012, 12:58 pm

      Hi Janelle,
      Actually in developing countries where almost everyone has low level helminth infections, autoimmune and other “western” diseases are non-existent. These people have more problems with bacterial and protozoan infections, such as cholera and malaria.

      Their low life expectancy is due to many variable other than a small helminth infection. The worst a large helminth infection can cause is anemia.

  • Jen @ Dear Mommy Brain April 12, 2012, 10:13 am

    Helminth therapy is currently available outside of the US, but there are some human studies in progress in the states. My understanding is that the pig worms “distract” your immune system, lowering the inflamatory response in autoimmune patients.

    I almost participated in a study in Kansas City, MO but declined because the helminths supplied were not therapeutic doses and it would have been a hardship to travel that distance so frequently. But I am VERY excited about the future potential in treating my Crohn’s and possibly even my MS.

    • Jill April 12, 2012, 1:01 pm

      Hi Jen,
      Yes, I think there is some very exciting research with human clinical trials to look forward to!

  • Sarah L April 12, 2012, 12:44 pm

    My family lives in South Asia most of the time and we have been told that it is good to take de-worming medicine about every six months but I have hesitated to do that because I don’t like to take more medicines than necessary. My son passed about a 5 inch round worm(Ascaris lumbricoides) when he was 20 months old and we gave him the medicine then. Lately we’ve just tried to take diatomaceous earth daily because we’ve heard it helps get rid of parasites.

    Are you suggesting I shouldn’t worry about worm infestation and just let them live happily in my kids? IF this is true, it would be a big relief to me. I’ve read about worms causing malnutrition and many other problems.

    • Jill April 12, 2012, 9:17 pm

      Hi Sarah,
      The evidence is suggesting that a low level helminth infection can modulate the immune system.

    • Rachel @ Rediscovering the Kitchen August 17, 2012, 1:32 am

      There are different kinds of worms, some you need to be worried about and some you don’t. I would talk about it with a well informed and up to date on the latest research doctor.

  • Hematoxophile April 13, 2012, 12:04 am

    I am using helminths, necator americanus. Not using too many, just 12. And a few trichuris trichiura, infected myself. I was tired of collecting autoimmune diseases. Paleo has been worderful for me. Really helped my narcolepsy, not cured, but cut way back on meds. I think helminths and paleo diet are synergistic for healing from autoimmunity.

    • Jill April 13, 2012, 11:11 am

      Hi Hematoxophile,
      Thanks for sharing. Your site is interesting! I agree — appropriate diet is an essential adjunct to alternative therapies.

  • Maureen April 17, 2012, 10:36 am

    I am just strating to learn about GNM. Seems like the more I read and learn the more I find that Dr. Hamer is right.

  • Suzanne Andrews April 17, 2012, 7:52 pm

    I have the autoimmune disease, alopecia. I wonder if any tests have been done with that?

    • Jill April 17, 2012, 9:41 pm

      Hi Suzanne,
      I do not think that is being studied, but I will be posting about current research in humans soon.

  • Rebecca @ Natural Mothers Network April 19, 2012, 9:13 am

    Absolutely fascinating- brilliant! Thanks for sharing this at Natural Mother’s Seasonal Celebration Sunday! x

  • France @ Beyond The Peel April 20, 2012, 7:29 pm

    ok that’s pretty cool. I had no idea. I can always trust to learn something fascinating from you Jill. Thanks for coming by and sharing it at Whole Food Wednesdays.

  • April @ The 21st Century Housewife April 23, 2012, 4:32 am

    What an interesting post! I really enjoyed reading it.

  • Laura @ Gluten Free Pantry April 23, 2012, 4:01 pm

    What a fascinating read and very informative! Thank you so much for sharing your great post on Allergy-Free Wednesdays! Be sure to check back next week for recipe highlights (including the top 3 reader choice submissions and hostess favorites).

    Be Well!

  • Tricia September 29, 2012, 11:31 am

    Thanks for the interesting info. I agree with most everything I’ve read on your site, and am always interested in learning ways to live fully and naturally. I enjoy vibrant health and well being. I do a LOT of organic vegetable and flower gardening. We have beautiful, naturally composted raised bed (horse manure, leaves, wood chips, kitchen scraps). I mostly do not wear gloves while transplanting, weeding, ;harvesting, etc., and so my hands and under my nails are frequently really “dirty”. Do you think that this allows for healthy helminths to enter my system? Also, I’m traveling to India for 6 weeks – would you recommend I walk barefoot there?

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