Asthma has increased by around 160% worldwide in the last 20 years and 25% of U.S. children suffer from it. This rise is a mystery to scientists. Some think it’s because children play indoors more so they don’t get enough exposure to bacteria, which can strengthen their immune systems. Others think smaller families may be the problem, as the youngest is usually the healthiest, since his immune system has been exposed to germs from all his siblings. Other researchers have even implicated margarine. The newest culprit is antibiotics.

While antibiotics are a godsend, James Randerson writes in New Scientist that they may also lead to a higher rate of asthma and allergies because they upset the body’s normal balance of intestinal microbes, making our immune system unable to tell the difference between harmless microbes and dangerous bacteria, and causing an asthmatic reaction. This theory is strengthened by the fact that there was less asthma and also less antibiotic use among East German children before the Berlin wall fell.

Researcher Gary Huffnagle introduced both bacteria and antibiotics into the guts of mice and got an asthmatic immune response. He says, “Their lungs are shredded, absolutely shredded. I’m sure they can’t breathe.” The mice also experienced a much higher immune response to allergens, meaning that antibiotics may also make people more susceptible to allergies. Huffnagle says, “Suddenly, your ability to ignore a mold spore has gone.”

Gut bacteria somehow train the immune system to ignore the harmless molecules that wind up in our stomach and not to overreact to them, but how they do this is a mystery. Patients who have just finished antibiotic treatment should also receive “probiotic” tablets containing “good” gut bacteria, to reestablish it in their intestines. Eating raw fruits and vegetables also helps. “Once you are done with the antibiotics you are not finished,” says Huffnagle. “You need to recover from the treatment itself.”

One way to solve the problem of asthma may be to live more like we did in the past.

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