In industrialized countries the incidence of diseases caused by immune dysregulation has risen. Epidemiologic studies initially suggested this was connected to a reduction in the incidence of infectious diseases; however, an association with defects in immunoregulation is now being recognized. Effector T(H)1 and T(H)2 cells are controlled by specialized subsets of regulatory T cells. Some pathogens can induce regulatory cells to evade immune elimination, but regulatory pathways are homeostatic and mainly triggered by harmless microorganisms. Helminths, saprophytic mycobacteria, bifidobacteria and lactobacilli, which induce immunoregulatory mechanisms in the host, ameliorate aberrant immune responses in the setting of allergy and inflammatory bowel disease. These organisms cause little, if any, harm, and have been part of human microecology for millennia; however, they are now less frequent or even absent in the human environment of westernized societies. Deficient exposure to these 'old friends' might explain the increase in immunodysregulatory disorders. The use of probiotics, prebiotics, helminths or microbe-derived immunoregulatory vaccines might, therefore, become a valuable approach to disease prevention.