Can Playing in the Garden Be Good for Your Immune System?

By User:Vmenkov (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (

We’ve all heard about allergies and some of us even know firsthand the misery of not being able to breath, having scratchy, watery eyes and living on antihistamines. You’ve probably heard the saying a “little bit of dirt doesn’t hurt anyone,” haven’t you? Despite living in a world obsessed with antibacterial cleaners and cleanliness, there may be some merit behind being exposed to the natural environment.

Our homes are immaculately cleaned and sterile, and the overuse of antibacterial cleaners has disrupted the natural relationship humans have with bacteria and the parasites that evolve with us.

Are We Too Clean?

Recently, a celebrity doctor announced we are “too clean,” and suggested children stop washing their hands before eating a meal. However, that is too simplistic of a thought.

Professor Sally Bloomfield says, “There is good evidence to suggest that continued exposure to our microbial world is important for us.”
She further states, “But encouraging people not to wash their hands at a time when we’re being urged to avoid antibiotics, and when there are new germs around, is a very dangerous message to be putting out.”

How much dirt is good for you? Or are you being exposed to the right kind of dirt?

In 1989, Professor David Strachan an epidemiologist from St. George’s Hospital in Tooting, South London, put forward his “hygiene hypothesis,” which basically promotes the idea that cleanliness could make someone more prone to experiencing allergies.
Dr. Strachan had been pondering the idea of cleanliness and how it could relate to increased allergies. He was grappling with the idea that although Western countries have clean drinking water, childhood vaccinations and sanitation, allergies were becoming more common.

He discovered that children with fewer older siblings tended to be more likely to develop hay fever than those with many siblings. Perhaps, he stated, children from bigger families had more exposure to childhood infections and this resulted in natural resistance against allergies.

His theory was that if immune cells are not trained by microbes during childhood, the balance of these cells was tipped and allergies resulted.

The hygiene hypothesis formulated by Professor Strachan has since been reinterpreted to allow for our modern obsession with being rid of germs, by means of obsessive cleaning. It could be that excessive cleaning may be making us ill, because we aren’t being exposed to microbes.


There are some problems with the hygiene hypothesis. Firstly, it’s not just the allergies linked to fewer siblings; autoimmune disorders such as type 1 diabetes and multiple sclerosis are as well.

Studies have since been done that contradict the idea that infections are to blame. Possibly, it is not because of lack of exposure to viral infections that is behind the increase in allergies, but insufficient exposure to bacteria and parasitic worms.

Our outdoor environment is teaming with microbes, most of which are entirely harmless. Microbes are only a small portion of what keeps our immune system healthy. Hand washing after using the restroom, exposure to the outdoors, eating a healthy diet and regularly exercising are the best ways to eliminating inflammation in our tissues and can help reduce a child’s propensity for allergies.


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