To sniff out childhood allergies, researchers head to the farm

Updated Oct 12 2015
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Allergies plague many of us, and apparently they're about to be a hindrance to even MORE people: nearly half of all kids are allergic to something. The prevailing theory posits that humans have more allergies because we're more clean than we ever have been — we can't train our bodies to fight stuff off if it's not there in the first place.

Researchers have noticed that Amish children who live on farms in rural Indiana have significantly lower rates of allergies, and they think drinking raw milk and living in a dirtier environment might be the reason why:

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.

"We think there's something about milk," Holbreich says. "That's key, along with exposure to large animals, particularly cows."

Scientists don't know exactly what it is in raw milk, or in the barn, or on the cows, that helps boost the immune system. They're researching that now. But Holbreich cautions against drinking raw milk or serving it to your child. It contains too many dangerous, disease-causing bacteria.

Want to know more? Head over to NPR to get the details.

  1. Totally non-scientific followup: I grew up on a farm (few to no cows, lots of sheep, horses and rabbits) and I'm about the least-allergic person I know. I hypothesize that my immune system said "aw, fuckit" a long time ago.
    I also don't get sick very often. Knock on wood.

    Not sure why they are fixated on the raw milk; I'd be willing to bet it's more related to the exposure to soil microbes. But I'm an search engine optimizer, not a microbiologist.

    • I suspect this has to do with the small body, which is in its prime to build immunity while also receiving antibodies from mother's milk, has the chance to meet pathogens that often cause allergies and develop antibodies against them. There's evidence that kids who are 2 or older when first trying peanuts, boiled honey, wheat, etc., are more likely to become allergic.

      I've been insulted for letting my daughter lay down and nap with the doggies on the floor instead of moving her to the bed, but she's comfortable, isn't being harmed, and is extremely healthy with no allergies at all. We also let her have peanut butter and honey on whole wheat when she was 12 months old, and nope, no allergies. Healthy as can be!

  2. I played in the mud CONSTANTLY as a kid, and am now less sick than my siblings, who preferred to play indoors. I now let my infant son play wherever he wants or put anything in his mouth as long as it isn't a dangerous place or a choking hazard. Dirty doesn't scare me. Superbugs are made by people/places who are too clean, not the dirty floor or the mud.

  3. Interesting conclusions to make actually. Looking at it and my husband's childhood vs my childhood. His was super clean, no animals (his mom hates pets), in city, etc. Mine was in a small town, horses, cows, dust, dirt, dogs, not so clean, etc.
    My husband has awful allergies and suffers from quite sever rhinitis every spring and fall, he gets sinus infections All. The. Time. I have some minor allergies, but nothing that really interferes with my day to day life or that I need drugs for. I really just need to clear my throat more often.

    My daughter gets a mix of both lives I suppose, I'm not the best housekeeper in the world and she spends a good part of her day outside. But, we live in city and don't get out to see livestock much anymore.

  4. 😛 Really trying not to say anything about raw milk, knowing the way the cows are kept, knowing the environment, the theory of being exposed to small does of bacteria seems to help, or how a largely organic existance is good for you….

  5. Aren't the Amish into breastfeeding and birthing at home as well? Wouldn't the immunity provided by breast milk also have something to do with the lack of allergies?

    • The only way to test that would be to compare Amish breast-fed kids to "modern" breast-fed kids and see the rates of allergies. Breast milk can only give babies antibodies that the mother has in her system. So I would say the environmental factors of the mother effect how well breast milk protects against allergies, and in that case, who says it isn't ALL environment? Interesting topics for further study.

  6. I'm presuming this is part of the larger 'hygiene hypothesis' on allergies… I wonder why the researchers are focused on 'raw' milk, though. The article didn't quote them as explaining why.

  7. It drives me nuts that the research discusses the linkages between healthier kids and consumption of raw milk but then warns about how "dangerous" raw milk is. Right…

    • Raw milk doesn't work with the industrial dairy complex the U.S. has set up to deliver low quality milk to the masses. That's the only reason they're trying to shut it down and call it unsafe.

    • Well, at this point it's all preliminary anyway. It wouldn't be prudent to decide that only one of many factors is the one that's protecting these kids.

  8. I wonder how they, overall, came to the conclusion that the Amish are less allergic? I mean…I imagine they're less allergic to the stuff in their environs…but compared to most other Americans today, they have a pretty limited diet.

    This is really interesting. Thanks for sharing it. For the record, I played in the dirt all I wanted as a kid, and spent a goodly amount of time out in nature too, and I'm not allergic to anything, as far as I know…but I've always been rather "sickly," otherwise.

    • I don't know how/why these particular researchers focused in on the raw milk but, more generally, raw milk has a certain cult following of families who use it somewhat "medicinally" and claim that it has greatly relieved allergies and asthma in their children. It's possible that these researchers are going off of those anecdotal stories and looking for more evidence to confirm/refute the stories.

  9. I'm pretty interested in this and similar studies in a sort of skeptical way – the Amish are somewhat isolated (diet, chemicals, etc.), so it's hard to compare them to other Americans. They're not exactly a control group…
    That being said, I'm a gardener in the summertime, and I consume a great deal of dirt via osmosis (and my dirty fingers on my pbj at lunch)…I'm more healthy than many people that I know. I also let my daughter play in the dirt… and eat it… and she's doing all right so far, too. Maybe there's something to it!

  10. I grew up on a farm (cows, chickens, hogs, goats, sheep, tons of cats, a handful of dogs and a goose). And I drank raw until I was 6 or so. No allergies.

    Although, when I went off to college (where there were no animals), I noticed that when I came back old cats started to make me slightly sneezy.

    I make sure that my daughter gets sufficient time playing in the dirt.

  11. I grew up with no animals and super clean mother who ensured that the house was constantly spotless. Amoungst other things, I have always been very allergic to animals. Yet since leaving home and getting 2 dogs and four rabbits, I haven't had a problem. I can bury my head in their fur and not get the slightest reaction. My soon to be born daughter will be playing in the dirt with the dogs and eating bugs. Nothing like a mud pie to boost the immune system!

  12. This story was amazing! "Raw milk may be the key, but don't drink it!" "Our environment may be the problem, but don't worry, just take more medications!" It was hard to believe they were serious!!
    It would be impossible to pinpoint what exactly makes the Amish less susceptible to allergies. But we do know that our own environment is toxic (common cleaning supplies, cosmetics, medications, air pollution, water pollution, pesticides, stress, lack of community, processed foods, etc.). The Amish are only subject to the toxic things that come into their environment via the rest of us, so the answer seems pretty straightforward to me.
    Also, there's a problem with us thinking "Oh, I should just stop washing stuff and worrying about germs." The yucky stuff that confronts us (staph, lead, DDT, etc.) is much more dangerous than the harmless bacteria that confront the Amish. Likewise, raw milk is safe if it comes from small well maintained farms, but if our huge dairy industry just stopped sanitizing their disgusting milk, we'd suffer the consequences.

  13. My Aunt (in the 60's) was told by a doctor that she was "too clean" & she needed to "let your kids be dirty" as she was always taking her eldest 2 to the doctors. Since then, her kids were hardly ever sick.

    I grew up on a boat, and have horrible food allergies. I blame it on the un-availability of a broad variety of foods. Also, we wernt exactly flush, so we had a pretty basic diet unless we could trade, barter or forrage for fresh foods.

  14. My mom grew up on a farm drinking raw milk and she's allergic to cats and some tree pollens. I grew up in her (not very clean–sorry, Mom) house in the country with pets and I have the exact same allergies my mom has.

    I have a basic problem with the "hygiene hypothesis." It's based on the assumption that our houses are cleaner now than they were in the 60s (when most people no longer lived on farms). Are they? People today spend less time cleaning house. It strikes me as a glaring plot hole.

  15. I grew up on a dairy farm and drank raw milk until I was 10. We played in the barn barefoot, rode our bikes at full speed through the cow pasture from sun-up to sun-down, and ate sometimes ate our lunch while accompanying Dad on the manure spreader. Out of the three of us (my sisters and I), the only one with an allergy is my youngest sister, who is allergic to penicillin and amoxacillin. The only time we ever had any health issues was after we moved to town and I developed asthma in high school while on the track team- not by riding my ATV through a ditch full of weeds. Figure that one out.

  16. Forgive my ignorance, but can allergies also be linked to genetics? I'm just asking because they're looking at a smaller gene pool. (Although I do agree that breast milk and growing up on a farm does wonders for your immunity system.)

  17. The amish 'stay in their lane' when it comes to food and other things they're exposed to. Talking with my Doc the other day about my son's food intollerances, she's hypothesising that there is a rise in intollerancesas there is a rise in available food variety. I.e. you wouldn't show a reaction to tomatoes if you've never eaten a tomato.
    Take an Amish raised family and dump them elsewhere and I'd be curious what the results would be.

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