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Immune system diseases such as autoimmunity, allergies, and asthma have been on the rise. In his book An Epidemic of Absence: A New Way of Understanding Allergies and Autoimmune Diseases, science writer Moises Velasquez-Manoff discusses a compelling theory that attempts to explain why immune dysfunction has dramatically increased.
The body is a robust ecosystem (the microbes in and on us outnumber our own cells), that evolved in a larger ecosystem also teaming with microbes and parasites. Since those microbes were unavoidable—and some of them even necessary—the immune system came to depend on them, or so the theory suggests. Through helping the immune system regulate itself, exposure to microbes protected against these illnesses. Remove those parasites, alter the balance of healthy microbes, eliminate the stimuli the immune system has evolved to relate to—and immune dysfunction results.
The “hygiene hypothesis” (better name: old friends hypothesis) is helping expand knowledge of the immune system and the relationship between the inner and outer ecosystem. While there are no straightforward answers for those of us living with autoimmunity, allergies, and asthma, certain patterns can point to behavioral changes that might provide some benefit.
What Moises and I talk about
- Why Moises started researching the origins of autoimmunity, allergies, and asthma
- What the SAD (Standard American Diet) might be doing to your internal microbiome
- How removing ourselves from the environment we evolved in has led to the rise of immune diseases
- Why the “hygiene hypothesis” is a misleading name (and why “old friends hypothesis” is better)
- How in evolution the things you can’t escape from become things that you depend on
- How historically being infected with certain parasites seemed to prevent immune dysfunction
- How the genes that are linked to autoimmunity might have been beneficial in the right environment
- Why biodiversity is good for your health
- What the “hookworm underground” is and Moises’s experience of inoculating with hookworm larvae
- New metaphors emerging to understand the immune system
“I do worry that they’ll just end up with another drug that hits one aspect of how your immune system works and really what the living organism is doing is multiple things at once. I think that might be key. If they could figure out a way to emulate that without the cost that would be terrific.”
“You’re not weak, you’re actually stronger, but you’re in the wrong environment.” tweet
Moises is the author of the book An Epidemic of Absence: A New Way of Understanding Allergies and Autoimmune Diseases, and has written extensively, mostly on science and environment, for The Christian Science Monitor. His work has also appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Chicago Tribune, and the Indianapolis Star, among other publications. He holds a master of arts, with a concentration in science writing, from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.
Find Moises Online
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