As someone that suffers myself from asthma I was keen to read more about how exposure to animals (both farm and household pets) can reduce the chances of developing asthma. How can exposure to animals possible alter my microbiome?
The NEJM recently published data on how different farming techniques in the US between Amish and Hutterite impacted house dust and ultimately the microbiome of children living in these homes.
NEJM researchers showed that substances in the house dust from Amish, but not Hutterite, homes were able to engage and shape the innate immune system (the body’s front-line response to most microbes) in young Amish children (7-14 years of age) in ways that may suppress pathological responses leading to allergic asthma.
Why were the Amish children more protected? Although both groups depend on agriculture, their farming practices differ. The Amish use traditional methods. They live on single-family dairy farms and rely on horses for fieldwork and transportation. In contrast, the Hutterites live on large communal farms. They use modern, industrialized farm machinery. This distanced young Hutterite children from the constant daily exposure to farm animals and thus minimised the benefit that was seen among Amish children.
Should we be taking our children to the local farm to spend more time with cows? This may not be the only solution to receiving this benefit. Other recent research suggest a similar benefit with a more familiar fuzzy animal, your household pet.
What is common among both studies and among other research on the microbiome is that diversity is our friend. So don't shy away from exposing your children and yourselves to more variety; be it food or animals.
Our study in a small number of children was sufficient to show significant differences in the prevalence of asthma and in immune profiles, suggesting that very strong environmental factors must account for these differences.