“Lisa’s Crohn’s disease improved with whipworm. Hookworm sent Dan’s multiple sclerosis into remission, and likewise Josh’s psoriasis. A bad case of chiggers calmed Lawrence’s autistic outbursts, and whipworm infusions have improved him further still,” writes Abigail Zuger M.D. in the New York Times article, A Messy, Exuberant Case Against Being Too Clean.
No, this isn’t science gone horribly wrong. Researchers are beginning to suspect that our obsession in the West for cleanliness is actually backfiring and leading to a shocking spike in autoimmune disorders and other diseases — asthma, diabetes and food allergies, even cancer and heart disease, to name a few. In response, scientists are entertaining the idea of an unconventional approach to combating these illnesses: fecotherapy.
Is this the future of healthcare? The introduction of microbe-rich particles into the body (including parasites), which encourage an internal landscape similar to our distant ancestors, without the risk of potentially life-threatening illness? Moises Velasquez-Manoff, author of “An Epidemic of Absence,” believes we’re heading in that direction.
The Hygiene Hypothesis
Velasquez-Manoff presents a compelling argument for the idea that, in being too clean and sanitary, we’ve actually done our immune system a disservice. Based on the latest theory of immunity that’s making the rounds in scientific circles, the hygiene hypothesis claims when our immune system doesn’t have it’s usual targets of microbial invaders to keep itself busy, it will begin to attack the body as an autoimmune disorder. Adding to the problem, when young children don’t have the traditional exposure to germsthrough animals, dirt and living in large families, their immune systems never fully develop, leading to illness down the line. But the issue may go back further still — to the womb.
The Connection Between Inflammation, Immunity and Autism
A population-wide study conducted in Denmark found that inflammation during pregnancy substantially increases the risk of autism in the child. Covering over 700,000 births spanning a decade, the study established a strong correlation between the mother’s inflammatory state and the development of autism in her children. Rheumatoid arthritis elevated the risk by 80 percent, whereas celiac disease increased it by a staggering 350 percent.
Scientists believe the immune response of the mother creates unique antibodies which disrupt fetal brain proteins. A team at the MIND Institute, a research center for neurodevelopmental disorders at the University of California, Davis tested the theory by injecting antibodies into pregnant macaques. The offspring from the mothers that were given the special antibodies exhibited autistic tendencies, such as repetitive behavior and difficulties socializing with the group.
The root of the problem lies with inflammation. Paul Patterson, an expert in neuroimmunity at Caltech, discovered that when pregnant mice were inflamed artificially (without a living infective organism), behavioral problems in the young developed.
In light of these findings, Valasquez-Manoff rightly asks in An Immune Disorder at the Root of Autism:
“Why are we so prone to inflammatory disorders? What has happened to the modern immune system? There’s a good evolutionary answer to that query, it turns out. Scientists have repeatedly observed that people living in environments that resemble our evolutionary past, full of microbes and parasites, don’t suffer from inflammatory diseases as frequently as we do.”
In an era of hand sanitizers, antibacterial soaps, disinfectants and antibiotics, one might think we are at continual war against germs, contagious bugs and things that creep in the night — otherwise known as parasites. To a certain extent we are, in the developed world at least. It’s interesting to note that the surge in autoimmune disorders throughout the West — including Crohn’s disease, lupus, arthritis, psoriasis, multiple sclerosis and some 152 other diseases — are virtually unheard of in third world countries. Specific communities, like the Amish in North America, seem to demonstrate a surprising lack of these disorders as well.
Living a Life Less Clean
Does this mean we need to resort to fecotherapy or completely regress back to our unclean days, foregoing all manner of modern intervention? Thankfully not. But we can improve heath by ditching the antibacterial soaps, hand sanitizers and disinfectants in our homes — all of which destroy good bacteria in the gut and set the stage for inflammation and subsequent autoimmune disorders. We can use antibiotics judiciously and with caution. Mothers can chose to breastfeed their babies. We can incorporate a daily probiotic supplement and fermented foods into our diet.
Moreover, avoid sugar like the plague and reduce carbohydrate consumption — both seriously disrupt the intestinal biome by feeding ‘bad’ bacteria. Also, by abandoning your dishwasher and hand washing instead, you will further boost contact with immunity enhancing microbes. Exposure to the natural world — think gardening, pets and the great outdoors — is yet another path to health. And don’t forget to let your kids make those mud pies.