Hygiene and other early childhood influences on the subsequent function of the immune system

Dig Dis. 2011;29(2):144-53. doi: 10.1159/000323877. Epub 2011 Jul 5.


The current 'Darwinian' synthesis of the hygiene (or 'Old Friends') hypothesis suggests that the increase in chronic inflammatory disorders that started in Europe in the mid-19th century and progressed until the late 20th century is at least partly attributable to immunodysregulation resulting from lack of exposure to microorganisms that were tasked by co-evolutionary processes with establishing the 'normal' background levels of immunoregulation, a role that they perform in concert with the normal microbiota. This is an example of 'evolved dependence'. The relevant organisms co-evolved with mammals, already accompanied early hominids in the Paleolithic era and are associated with animals, mud and faeces. These organisms often establish stable carrier states, or are encountered continuously in primitive environments as 'pseudocommensals' from mud and water. These organisms were not lost during the first epidemiological transition, which might even have resulted in increased exposure to them. However, the crucial organisms are lost progressively as populations undergo the second epidemiological transition (modern urban environment). Recently evolved sporadic 'childhood infections' are not likely to have evolved immunoregulatory roles, and epidemiology supports this contention. The consequences of the loss of the Old Friends and distortion of the microbiota are aggravated by other modern environmental changes that also lead to enhanced inflammatory responses (obesity, vitamin D deficiency, pollution (dioxins), etc.). The range of chronic inflammatory disorders affected may be larger than had been assumed (allergies, autoimmunity, inflammatory bowel disease, but also coeliac disease, food allergy, vascular disease, some cancers, and depression/anxiety when accompanied by raised inflammatory cytokines).

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Child
  • Clinical Trials as Topic
  • Genetic Variation
  • Humans
  • Hygiene*
  • Immune System / immunology*
  • Immune System / physiology*
  • Life Style
  • Models, Animal