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Allergy benefit of good bacteria bolsters back-to-basics perspective

Carey RestinoThe Arctic Sounder
OPINION: A new study indicates that overuse of antibiotics is degrading our overall health. The best solution may not be trying to replace what we have sanitized out of us but rather to try not to mess so much with our bodies and diets in the first place. Erik Hill

Whenever a child comes over for an afternoon of play these days, mothers not only have to ask about drop-off times and locations but also the question, “Does your child have any allergies I should know about.”

Allergies, especially among children, have become so widespread nowadays that coffee shops have to carry several types of milk, and many stores are offering gluten-free products to stave off the hungry eyes of those who avoid wheat at all costs.

Some 15 million people in the United States are said to have allergies severe enough to threaten their lives. Among children, the food allergy rates have jumped 50 percent between 1997 and 2011. Some classrooms now have to ban any foods with nuts in them because children can’t even be in the same room with a peanut or it might trigger a massive reaction.

Something has changed, and scientists are wondering why. This week, news came out that one suspected culprit in the quest to understand the allergy explosion is the ever-increasing use of antibiotics in children. Scientists recently released a study saying that gut microbes may be killed by early antibiotic use, and that those essential gut microbes may be essential to controlling immune responses.

Studies like this further substantiate the sense many have that the farther we stray from those things that kept us healthy for generations, the worse we may fare as a species.

Such is the case with antibiotics and essential gut bacteria. Also detrimental, the study said, was being raised in a sterile environment. Perhaps this is why your grandparents survived even without a six-pack of hand sanitizer at the ready at all times.

The exciting part about this study is that it may be possible to reintroduce the missing gut good guys and reverse the ever-narrowing field of foods acceptable to many youth and adults. That’s surely a long way off -- we are still in the mouse phase -- but perhaps it will come to pass for our grandchildren to come. You can read more about the study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, where it was reported.

Still, the best solution may be not to try to replace what we have sanitized out of us but rather to try not to mess so much with our bodies and diets in the first place. It’s hard to have faith in your body to fix itself rather than take the magic pills, especially when you are talking about a young child, but obviously, the pendulum has swung too far the other way. The average child in the United States has taken three courses of antibiotics by the time he or she is 2 years old, according to infectious disease specialists at New York University. Can we really all be facing the kind of illnesses that could harm us that often? Or are we turning too often to a quick fix instead of letting our bodies do the work. With findings like these, we start to see the unintended consequences. Now we see the wisdom of letting a bug or two into our system, of letting a fever run its course, rather than knocking it out with some substance from a laboratory.

It may be gross oversimplification, but many believe that the root of the problem -- a problem that is making us sick, fat and depressed as a society overall and will lead to our children having a shorter lifespan for the first time -- is that we are straying too far from the simple lives of past generations, when food came from plants and trees not factories. Luckily, this is Alaska, and the option to harvest our own food still exists. We still have the skills, tools and resources to give ourselves the best sources of health we can.

For rural Alaskans, especially those who have survived in the harshest of conditions for generations with a specific diet, the adage that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it holds true. When health problems plague our rural populations, going back to basics may be the answer. Rather than using modern medicine and science to undo the problems we have created, one might consider trying not to create the problems in the first place by eating the healthiest foods available, avoiding things with ingredients on the label that you can’t pronounce, and staying away from quick fixes as much as possible.

It seems to be a lesson we are learning the hard way, but chances are good that we each have a lot more control over our health than we think.

Carey Restino is the editor of The Arctic Sounder, where this commentary first appeared. Used with permission.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.