Exposure to farm animals protects farm children from asthma, researchers find

Asthma is a common disease among most children, with the exception being farm children. Immunologists from the University of Zurich have pinpointed the cause: exposure to farm animals. Specifically, the researchers have identified a sialic acid in farm animals that has proven to be effective against lung tissue inflammation.

The sialic acid is N-Glycolylneuraminic acid (Neu5Gc), a substance that is prevalent in the majority of vertebrates but absent in humans. According to the researchers, humans are unable to produce this non-microbial substance naturally, yet are fully capable of absorbing it from animals through either touch or by consuming food products made from animals.

Consumption of animal food products allows the body to assimilate Neu5Gc with glycoproteins. On the other hand, coming into contact with Neu5Gc triggered an antibody reaction; when combined with environments that were not very hygienic, the human immune system then becomes less sensitive and less prone to allergic reactions, as is the case with farm children. (Related: Kids who grow up on farms have lower allergy risks, stronger lungs as adults)

The researchers came to this conclusion after analyzing and comparing the concentrations of Neu5Gc antibodies in the serum samples of over a thousand children. They found that farm children, who had been exposed to animals like cows, dogs, and cats for the majority of their lives, had higher levels of Neu5Gc-resistant antibodies in their blood. This, in turn, caused the children to become less prone to suffering from asthma.

Testing on mice added weight to their study: mice who had consumed food with Neu5Gc molecules developed airways that had become less hyper-responsive, thereby reducing their likelihood of experiencing symptoms associated with asthma.

Moreover, the researchers noted that although Neu5Gc had no effect on immunoglobulin E (IgE), it did trigger anti-inflammatory effects in the immune system. “This takes place through so-called regulatory T-cells, which have an increased presence,” stated lead author and researcher Remo Frei. “These T-cells dampen incorrect responses of the immune system and have a strong anti-inflammatory effect.”

Speaking to ScienceDaily.com on his team’s findings, Frei commented: “Our research results open up opportunities for transferring the protective effect of farms to all children. In this way, we can possibly lay an important foundation stone for effective allergy prevention.”

Scientists want you to get dirty: It’s good for you

Frei and his team are not alone in their belief that early microbial exposure is an effective anti-allergy measure. Several studies on this subject have been conducted throughout the years, with one coming out as recently as last year. In the 2016 study, researchers compared the immune systems of Amish and Hutterite children. Although both groups are known for living as isolated farming communities, the Amish relied largely on manpower and horsepower to carry out their daily activities, while Hutterites utilized industrial equipment.

Blood samples collected from Amish children showed that they contained more neutrophils and less eosinophils than Hutterite children. While neutrophils are immune system cells that respond to infections, eosinophils contribute to allergy inflammation. Additionally, none of the 30 Amish system showed any signs of asthma; by contrast, six (or 20 percent) of the Hutterite children suffered from the disease. Furthermore, dust that had been collected from Amish homes had more mcicroorganisms and bacterial toxins that, when exposed to mice, protected their airways from showing asthma-like responses to allergens.

The bottom line is that being too clean will do the body no good, especially for young children. Since their immune systems are still young, they still have time to grow and develop. That simply isn’t feasible in a sterile environment, one devoid of any and all types of bacteria. A little dirt never hurt, especially when it comes to allergies and asthma.

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