WASHINGTON - Gritty rats and mice living in sewers and farms seem to have healthier immune systems than their squeaky clean cousins that frolic in cushy antiseptic labs, two studies indicate. The lesson for humans: Clean living may make us sick.Think about it: All those times you told your toddler to stop eating dirt -- you never dreamed you were doing the kid long-term damage.
The studies give more weight to a 17-year-old theory that the sanitized Western world may be partly to blame for soaring rates of human allergy and asthma cases and some autoimmune diseases, such as Type I diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis. The theory, called the hygiene hypothesis, figures that people's immune systems aren't being challenged by disease and dirt early in life, so the body's natural defenses overreact to small irritants such as pollen.
The new studies, one of which was published Friday in the peer reviewed Scandinavian Journal of Immunology, found significant differences in the immune systems between euthanized wild and lab rodents.
When the immune cells in the wild rats are stimulated by researchers, "they just don't do anything they sit there; if you give them same stimulus to the lab rats, they go crazy," said study co-author Dr. William Parker, a Duke University professor of experimental surgery. He compared lab rodents to more than 50 wild rats and mice captured and killed in cities and farms.
Also, the wild mice and rats had as much as four times higher levels of immunoglobulins, yet weren't sick, showing an immune system tuned to fight crucial germs, but not minor irritants, Parker said. He said what happened in the lab rats is what likely occurs in humans: their immune systems have got it so cushy they overreact to smallest of problems.
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Challenged immune systems — such as kids who grow up with two or more pets — don't tend to develop as many allergies, said Dr. Stanley Goldstein, director of Allergy & Asthma Care of Long Island.
In an early Woody Allen movie, Sleeper, Woody Allen's character awakens in a future in which scientists have learned that everything we thought was bad for you was good after all. Cigars and red meat are still suspect -- for now.