AS a nation we have become obsessed with cleanliness – filling our homes with anti-bacterial sprays and cleaners.
Many people believe that this obsession is to blame for the rise in allergies such as hay fever, eczema and asthma.
According to the NHS, around one in four people in the UK now suffers from allergies at some point in their lifetime, with numbers increasing every year.
And perhaps reducing our exposure to good and bad germs, which help strengthen the immune system, could be playing its part.
This is an idea which is based on “the hygiene hypothesis”, which was first proposed in a 1989 study by Prof David Strachan. It suggested that a lack of childhood exposure to harmful germs and fewer childhood infections was to blame for the rise in allergies.
Interestingly there is evidence that children who grow up on farms develop fewer allergies. The theory is that farms (particularly farm animals) increase exposure to different types of good and bad germs, which stimulate the immune system and reduce the risk that someone will develop an allergy.
However research suggests that exposure to germs could be only one possible reason for the increase in allergies and that diet, lack of exercise, our environment, use of antibiotics, lack of vitamin D and a family history of allergies may play a bigger role.
A spokesman for the NHS said it was important to maintain good standards of personal and home hygiene.
“Good hygiene is about avoiding infection and preventing the spread of infection to others – it isn’t about being dirt-free and doesn’t require being obsessively clean though.
“Essentially it’s about preventing the spread of germs at times and in places and situations where it really matters, such as when preparing food, after using the toilet, after sneezing and when someone’s ill with an infection.
“Good hygiene is critical in stopping the spread of disease-causing germs, such as colds and flu, tummy bugs like campylobacter, salmonella and E. coli O157.
“Particular care should be taken to protect at-risk groups such as babies, whose immune systems have not fully developed, and people with a weakened immune system because of illness or medication.”
It is thought that exposure to both good and bad germs in the first few years of life can help to develop the immune system as it helps the body to learn how to fight infection and to tell the difference between harmful and harmless substances.
Meanwhile boosting your intake of Vitamin D – essential for the development of the immune system – could also help to insure your body is in peak condition.
Our body creates most of our vitamin D from direct sunlight on our skin. We also get vitamin D from some foods, such as eggs, meat and oily fish such as salmon, mackerel and sardines.
Vitamin D is also added to all margarine and infant formula milk, as well as to some breakfast cereals, soya products, dairy products, powdered milks and low-fat spreads.