THE BLOG
06/30/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Digging For Worms: Can Parents Work Out The Hygiene Hypothesis?

During the earliest years of my son's life, while he was successively diagnosed with eczema, multiple food allergies and asthma, there was an immunologist-biologist hard at work - he was forcing hookworm larvae into flesh of his arm. The immunologist, David Pritchard, hoped that the worms would cross his skin barrier and infiltrate his body. We all dream. His? To prove an idea hatched during his prior field research in Papau New Guinea. There, David Pritchard observed that the natives who had more parasitic infestation did not suffer as much from autoimmune related ills.

David Pritchard got his results which supported the Hygiene Hypothesis - a neat explanation for the rise in modern day autoimmune conditions. The most current thinking of HH suggests that as modern medicine and our health status improves, former antagonists like parasites and symbiotic bacteria aren't getting a fair shake at programming our immune systems. These organisms activate important regulatory cells in the immune system called Regulatory T Cells. In other words, our bodies aren't adapting to our improved living conditions because humans are designed to fight health challenges that often don't exist anymore. Our Regulatory T Cell functioning is off kilter.

My son would make a shiny Hygiene Hypothesis poster child: He was administered antibiotics in the NICU (an uber sterile environment) after his birth and subsequently diagnosed with the full round of allergic conditions. He was hiving and vomiting before he was old enough to eat the genetically modified or Big Industry food that some people finger point as the culprits for certain autoimmune conditions.

I think that nourishing food is a key component in good health. But I believe the Hygiene Hypothesis supports a more likely cause for autoimmune conditions. So now what? My son might not be alive were it not for the antibiotics that may have prevented infantile complications. Now how can I undo his programming, in fact re-balance his overactive immune system, short of injecting my son with pin worms?

Manhattan may seem like a dirty place until you start searching around parasites. The sandbox was our raison d'etre until my son was three and conditions there seemed fairly promising (although technically I never saw any worms in there.) On a seasonal day in our local playground at least fifty kids would cycle through the same fifteen foot square of toy filled dirt, occasionally pouring in water from the local water fountain (bonus!) and wiggling bare, potentially sweaty toes through it.

Currently, my son is six. And Pre-school and Kindergarten were poor substitutes for the germy HH opportunities of my son's former daily dalliances in the parks. His classmates shared more stomach flues than parasites. And viruses aren't linked to the T Cell function affecting the allergic syndrome as strongly as say, tics or a swarm malaria-filled mosquitoes.

Then, about a month ago, both my children came home with surprisingly dusty hair. The dust, duh, turned out to be lice. Lice! Now there's one fine parasite. In fact, studies conducted on mice show that mice infested lice have "calmer immune systems" than non-infested mice. The glitch? My kids couldn't go back to school without a medical certificate of clearance. A day later, I joked about turning back while driving to Brooklyn to have my children "combed" by an Orthodox Jew lovingly referred to as The Lice Lady. But I didn't really want to among more creatures than already housed by my 30 floor co-op.

So I've taken a temporary hiatus on procuring true parasitic exposures within the confines of my lifestyle, save the occasional foray to poke sticks into my brother's mulch pile in his backyard wilderness of Morristown, New Jersey. I have learned this much -- A good worm is hard to find.