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Clean Girls At Risk for Asthma, Autoimmune Diseases as Women


Could keeping young girls too clean put them at risk for developing asthma, allergies, and autoimmune diseases as women? A new study suggests that the higher rates of these conditions seen in women could be explained by the hygiene hypothesis.

Keeping girls too clean could lead to health problems

The hygiene hypothesis is a well-studied phenomenon that suggests when young children are exposed to extremely clean environments—household and otherwise—their immune systems are not exposed to the necessary germs that allow the system to mature fully. Thus, the immune system’s response to infectious organisms can be inadequate, contributing to the development of asthma, allergies, and other immune system conditions.

Philosopher Sharyn Clough at Oregon State University suggests the fact that women have higher rates of many autoimmune disorders, asthma, and allergies could be explained by the hygiene hypothesis and how Western society socializes young girls.

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Clough notes that “Girls tend to be dressed more in clothing that is not supposed to get dirty, girls tend to play indoors more than boys, and girl’s playtime is more often supervised by parents.” These and other factors can likely result in girls staying cleaner because they are not exposed to the same amount and types of organisms that boys make contact with in their environment.

Although Clough is not suggesting that parents let their little girls eat dirt, she does support both boys and girls being allowed to play outside more often. On the scientific side, she is hoping “that the epidemiologists and clinicians go back and examine their data through the lens of gender.”

It is well established that as countries become more industrialized, rates of asthma, allergies, and autoimmune disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, Crohn’s disease, and multiple sclerosis rise. Women are disproportionately affected by many of these conditions; for example, the female to male ratio for multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, and lupus are 2:1, 3:1, and 9:1, respectively.

Clough notes that humans have “co-evolved with bacteria,” and that “we need to explore this relationship more, and not just in terms of eating ‘pro-biotic’ yogurt.” Evidence suggests that allowing girls to get a little dirty could help ward off the possibility of asthma, allergies, and autoimmune disease as women.

American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association
Oregon State University