By Matt Richtel
A century ago, British scientists suggested a link between increased hygiene and allergic conditions — the first hint that our immune systems are becoming improperly “trained.”
Should you pick your nose?
Don’t laugh. Scientifically, it’s an interesting question.
Should your children pick their noses? Should your children eat dirt? Maybe: Your body needs to know what immune challenges lurk in the immediate environment.
Should you use antibacterial soap or hand sanitizers? No. Are we taking too many antibiotics? Yes.
“I tell people, when they drop food on the floor, please pick it up and eat it,” said Dr. Meg Lemon, a dermatologist in Denver who treats people with allergies and autoimmune disorders.
“Get rid of the antibacterial soap. Immunize! If a new vaccine comes out, run and get it. I immunized the living hell out of my children. And it’s O.K. if they eat dirt.”
Dr. Lemon’s prescription for a better immune system doesn’t end there. “You should not only pick your nose, you should eat it,” she said.
She’s referring, with a facetious touch, to the fact our immune system can become disrupted if it doesn’t have regular interactions with the natural world.
“Our immune system needs a job,” Dr. Lemon said. “We evolved over millions of years to have our immune systems under constant assault. Now they don’t have anything to do.”
She isn’t alone. Leading physicians and immunologists are reconsidering the antiseptic, at times hysterical, ways in which we interact with our environment.
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Why? Let us turn to 19th-century London.
The British Journal of Homeopathy, volume 29, published in 1872, included a startlingly prescient observation: “Hay fever is said to be an aristocratic disease, and there can be no doubt that, if it is not almost wholly confined to the upper classes of society, it is rarely, if ever, met with but among the educated.”
Hay fever is a catchall term for seasonal allergies to pollen and other airborne irritants. With this idea that hay fever was an aristocratic disease, British scientists were on to something.
More than a century later, in November 1989, another highly influential paper was published on the subject of hay fever. The paper was short, less than two pages, in BMJ, titled “Hay Fever, Hygiene, and Household Size.”
The author looked at the prevalence of hay fever among 17,414 children born in March 1958. Of 16 variables the scientist explored, he described as “most striking” an association between the likelihood that a child would get hay fever allergy and the number of his or her siblings.
It was an inverse relationship, meaning the more siblings the child had, the less likely it was that he or she would get the allergy. Not just that, but the children least likely to get allergies were ones who had older siblings.
The paper hypothesized that “allergic diseases were prevented by infection in early childhood, transmitted by unhygienic contact with older siblings, or acquired prenatally from a mother infected by contact with her older children.
“Over the past century declining family size, improvements in household amenities, and higher standards of personal cleanliness have reduced the opportunity for cross infection in young families,” the paper continued. “This may have resulted in more widespread clinical expression of atopic disease, emerging in wealthier people, as seems to have occurred for hay fever.”
This is the birth of the hygiene hypothesis. The ideas behind it have since evolved and expanded, but it provides profound insight into a challenge that human beings face in our relationship with the modern world.
Our ancestors evolved over millions of years to survive in their environments. For most of human existence, that environment was characterized by extreme challenges, like scarcity of food, or food that could carry disease, as well as unsanitary conditions and unclean water, withering weather, and so on. It was a dangerous environment, a heck of a thing to survive.
At the center of our defenses was our immune system, our most elegant defense. The system is the product of centuries of evolution, as a river stone is shaped by water rushing over it and the tumbles it experiences on its journey downstream.
Late in the process, humans learned to take steps to bolster our defenses, developing all manner of customs and habits to support our survival. In this way, think of the brain — the organ that helps us develop habits and customs — as another facet of the immune system.
We used our collective brains to figure out effective behaviors. We started washing our hands and took care to avoid certain foods that experience showed could be dangerous or deadly. In some cultures, people came to avoid pork, which we now know is highly susceptible to trichinosis; in others, people banned meats, which we later learned may carry toxic loads of E. coli and other bacteria.
Ritual washing is mentioned in Exodus, one of the earliest books in the Bible: “So they shall wash their hands and their feet, that they die not.”
Our ideas evolved, but for the most part, the immune system did not. This is not to say that it didn’t change. The immune system responds to our environment. When we encounter various threats, our defenses learn and then are much more able to deal with that threat in the future. In that way, we adapt to our environment.
We survived over tens of thousands of years. Eventually, we washed our hands, swept our floors, cooked our food, avoided certain foods altogether. We improved the hygiene of the animals we raised and slaughtered for food.
Particularly in the wealthier areas of the world, we purified our water, and developed plumbing and waste treatment plants; we isolated and killed bacteria and other germs.
The immune system’s enemies list was attenuated, largely for the good. Now, though, our bodies are proving that they cannot keep up with this change. We have created a mismatch between the immune system — one of the longest surviving and most refined balancing acts in the world — and our environment.
Thanks to all the powerful learning we’ve done as a species, we have minimized the regular interaction not just with parasites but even with friendly bacteria and parasites that helped to teach and hone the immune system — that “trained” it. It doesn’t encounter as many bugs when we are babies. This is not just because our homes are cleaner, but also because our families are smaller (fewer older children are bringing home the germs), our foods and water cleaner, our milk sterilized. Some refer to the lack of interaction with all kinds of microbes we used to meet in nature as the “old friends mechanism.”
What does the immune system do when it’s not properly trained?
It can overreact. It becomes aggrieved by things like dust mites or pollen. It develops what we called allergies, chronic immune system attacks — inflammation — in a way that is counterproductive, irritating, even dangerous.
The percentage of children in the United States with a food allergy
rose 50 percent between 1997–1999 and 2009–2011, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The jump in skin allergies was 69 percent during that period, leaving 12.5 percent of American children with eczema and other irritations.
Food and respiratory allergies rose in tandem with income level. More money, which typically correlates with higher education, has meant more risk of allergy. This may reflect differences in who reports such allergies, but it also springs from differences in environment.
These trends are seen internationally, too. Skin allergies “doubled or tripled in industrialized countries during the past three decades, affecting 15–30 percent of children and 2–10 percent of adults,” according to a paper citing research from the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.
By 2011, one in four children in Europe had an allergy, and the figure was on the rise, according to a report by the World Allergy Organization. Reinforcing the hygiene hypothesis, the paper noted that migration studies have shown that children born overseas have lower levels of some types of both allergy and autoimmunity than migrants whose children are born in the United States.
There are related trends in inflammatory bowel disease, lupus, rheumatic conditions and, in particular, celiac disease. The last results from the immune’s system overreacting to gluten, a protein in wheat, rye and barley. This attack, in turn, damages the walls of the small intestine.
This might sound like a food allergy, but it is different in part because of the symptoms. In the case of an autoimmune disorder like this one, the immune system attacks the protein and associated regions.
Allergies can generate a more generalized response. A peanut allergy, for instance, can lead to inflammation in the windpipe, known as anaphylaxis, which can cause strangulation.
In the case of both allergy and autoimmune disorders, though, the immune system reacts more strongly than it otherwise might, or than is healthy for the host (yeah, I’m talking about you).
This is not to say that all of these increases are due to better hygiene, a drop in childhood infection, and its association with wealth and education. There have been many changes to our environment, including new pollutants. There are absolutely genetic factors as well.
But the hygiene hypothesis — and when it comes to allergy, the inverse relationship between industrialized processes and health — has held up remarkably well.
As our bodies strive for balance, Madison Avenue has made a full-court press for greater hygiene, sometimes to our detriment.
We’re fed a steady diet of a hygiene-related marketing that began in the late 1800s, according to a novel study published in 2001 by the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology. Scientists at Columbia University who did the research were trying to understand how we became so enamored of soap products.
They have vastly overprescribed antibiotics. These may be a huge boon to an immune system faced with an otherwise deadly infection. But when used without good reason, the drugs can wipe out healthy microbes in our gut and cause bacteria to develop defenses that make them even more lethal.
A scientist who led efforts at the World Health Organization to develop global policy to limit use of antibiotics told me that, philosophically, this is a lesson that runs counter to a century of marketing: We’re not safer when we try to eliminate every risk from our environment.
“We have to get away from the idea of annihilating these things in our local environment. It just plays upon a certain fear,” said the scientist, Dr. Keiji Fukuda.
Has much of our hygiene been practical, valuable, life-preserving? Yes.
Have we overcorrected? At times. Should you pick your nose? Or put another way: Might that urge to pick be part of a primitive strategy to inform your immune system about the range of microbes in your environment, give this vigilant force activity, and train your most elegant defense?
In short, from a cultural standpoint, you still probably shouldn’t pick — not in public. But it is a surprisingly fair scientific question.
Matt Richtel is a best-selling author and Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter based in San Francisco. He joined The Times staff in 2000, and his work has focused on science, technology, business and narrative-driven storytelling around these issues.
By Leo Babauta - Zen habits
While most people want to find a way to eat healthier, they are up against forces stronger than they understand.
Sure, we’d like to eat healthier — but then why do we keep failing? Why are most of us getting heavier over time, despite our best efforts?
To figure out a better method, we first have to look at the powerful forces we’re up against. Then firm our resolve, and try one or both of the powerful methods that I describe below.
The Forces We’re Up AgainstLet’s say you’d like to eat a healthier diet … think about what you’re up against:
I’m sure at least a couple of these sound familiar to most of you. Maybe too familiar — you might have been struggling with these for years.
The forces we’re up against are powerful:
Most of us can’t beat all of these really strong forces all the time. And so we win a few battles but lose the war over the long run.
What can we do against these powerful forces? Are they unstoppable?
No, we can overcome them. It will just take more focused effort than we usually believe when we say, “I’m going to start eating healthier, tomorrow!”
There are two powerful methods that can help us overcome these forces.
Powerful Method #1: Change Your Environment
Most of the forces above can be overcome with a complete change of our environment. Now, I understand that many people aren’t in complete control of their environment (teenagers, for example, or people living in a family) … but we can still make some changes that will help.
The more of these kinds of changes we can make, the better we’ll do against the forces above. See if you can make more changes than you normally would consider — sometimes when there’s a will, there’s a way to make it happen.
Imagine this: you go through your day with only healthy options to choose from, and you have healthy meals already prepared (you made them on Sunday). You wake up, grab a healthy breakfast, take your healthy lunch to work, avoid the unhealthy places your coworkers eat and instead read a book and eat your delicious lunch. You have healthy snacks packed for the afternoon when your energy starts to dip, and when you get home you have a healthy dinner to heat up and enjoy. At night, you have fruits you can eat if you get hungry.
With your environment changed, you will default to healthy most of the time. Then when you don’t have a choice, you can just do your best, and not worry too much about it.
Some changes to consider making to your environment:
These are just some ideas. You might come up with others, but these are some examples of changing your environment to support a healthy change. It’s more important than we often realize.
Powerful Method #2: Get Some Support & Accountability
The next most powerful thing you can do to make a change is to make it social — get friends, family and/or co-workers to give you support, join a challenge with you, or hold you accountable for the changes you’d like to make.
This is true for any habit, but it’s especially true for eating habits. That’s because our friends, family and co-workers are often the biggest influence on us when it comes to eating. If they are trying to make us eat dessert all the time, we will have a hard time resisting that for very long. But if they’re eating healthy meals and snacks with us, or at least encouraging us to do so, we will probably do a lot better.
Some suggestions here:
I highly suggest you join us in the Healthy Eating Challenge in Sea Change — I’d love to have you.
Two Other Things We Can Work On
While those are the two most powerful methods of change, there are a couple things that are also pretty important, that I should mention:
These might sound like a lot of changes to make, and they are. But you don’t have to do them all at once. Make it a project to do some of these changes each week, slowly practicing the new coping mechanisms, slowly changing your environment, slowly getting more support and accountability.
This is doable. You are worth it.
By Leo Babauta
There are very few people among us who doesn’t want his or her diet to get healthier. So I’m issuing a challenge for March: the Healthy Eating Challenge!
This challenge is meant to be doable and promote small, gradual change … but also help push us a little out of our comfort zone so that we can have a powerful change within a month.
It’s not going to change your entire diet all at once, but it can help you move to a healthier diet.
Here’s how it works:
It’s that simple. Choose from the mini-challenges and commit to it for the week, picking a new one each week. One small change at a time. Gradual change is the most powerful change, and this challenge is the perfect way to do that.
I suggest you join us in Sea Change — it’s free for a week, then $15/month after that. For this small monthly fee, you also get:
The Weekly Mini-Challenges
Here are the mini-challenges (you do not have to do all of these, just pick one per week):
1. Adding healthy things:
2. Changing your approach:
3. Cutting out unhealthy things (look at what you do now, and set a target that’s lower):
4. Vegan stuff (a few people asked for some suggestions):
Not every change listed above for everyone. Find changes that feel right to you, as I know not everyone agrees with everything I’ve listed.
What is healthy for you will be different than what is healthy for me. I believe in a vegan diet (out of compassion for animals) and try to eat whole foods as much as I can (but not religiously). That doesn’t mean you have to do that.
The one thing I believe is in trying to get foods that are full of nutrients — vegetables, fruits, beans (and legumes), nuts, seeds, whole grains — and eat less of the foods that are mostly empty of nutrients (processed foods, white bread and sugar, fried foods). Again, you don’t have to be religious about it — I eat cookies and French fries just like most normals!
Are you ready to start the challenge? Start today by joining my Sea Change Program.
Plans to change the rules on organ donation consent in England are set to clear their final hurdle in Parliament.
The legislation will be known as Max and Keira's Law after a boy who received a heart transplant and the girl who donated it.
Under the new system, which comes into effect next year, consent will be presumed unless people have opted out.
Currently, there is a voluntary opt-in scheme. Presumed consent has been operating in Wales since December 2015.
Organ donation consent rates in Wales are now the highest in the UK at 75%.
A voluntary opt-in system still exists in Northern Ireland while the Scottish Parliament is this week considering its own opt-out scheme.
Government ministers argue the change in the rules in England could save up to 700 lives a year by increasing the number of organs available.
Keira - the donor
Keira Ball, from Devon, was nine when she was involved in a car accident with her mum and brother.
Her father Joe was approached by the organ donor consent team after doctors in Bristol confirmed they could not save her life.
He told the BBC: "Although we'd never discussed organ donation, I knew it was what Keira would have wanted - it was in her nature."
Keira's organs were used to save four lives, among them Max Johnson, then also aged nine, who received her heart.
Max - the recipient
At the time of Keira's accident, Max was in hospital in Newcastle with heart failure following a viral infection.
He was being kept alive with a mechanical pump.
He told the BBC: "To be honest I was ready to die - I didn't think I would make it. I hugged Mum and Dad thinking this was the last hug with my parents."
The operation was a success and Max, now 11, is doing well, although the anti-rejection drugs he must take every day sometimes make him quite poorly.
Max's story prompted the prime minister to pledge to introduce presumed consent for organ donation in England.
There are currently around 6,000 people on the transplant waiting list in the UK and last year more than 400 patients died while waiting for a suitable organ.
Under the new system, people will be encouraged to register their consent for organ donation, or to opt out.
It will still be open to relatives to block a donation, so it will be important that families discuss their wishes.
Max and Keira's families both back public education campaigns.
Loanna Ball, Keira's mum, told the BBC: "If this issue was raised in school from a young age, children would happily talk about it with their friends and family; it would be an everyday conversation."
The family has set up a charity in memory of their daughter to promote donation and to help others in similar situations.
Max said: "I want everyone to talk to each other - if a member of your family died, would you let their organs go to waste and decay or save a few people's lives?"
The new legislation was a Private Members' Bill, introduced by Geoffrey Robinson MP.
It was piloted through the House of Lords by Lord Hunt, who told the BBC he was "absolutely delighted" the Bill was on course to pass into law, adding: "I am convinced that as a result, many more organs will be donated and lives saved as a consequence."
By Leo Babauta
The wind and rain were swirling around me powerfully, as I sat in my mom’s tropical flower garden in Guam and meditated.
A tropical storm was passing close to Guam, where I’m living at the moment, and I decided to go out into the strong winds and torrential rain to meditate for at least a few minutes. Don’t worry, it was safe.
I actually stood in meditation, as sitting in a puddle of rainwater wasn’t that appealing to me. The water kissed my face, the wind rocked my body into a sway, and I practiced being present in the storm.
I was practicing stillness in the middle of chaos.
Of course, we don’t need to have an actual tropical storm (which turned into a supertyphoon after it passed us) to practice with chaos. It’s all around us, every day. Chaos is the uncertainty of our daily lives, the constant barrage of information and requests and tasks and messages we’re swarmed with, the uncertainty of the global stage and national politics, of our finances and global economy, of changing communities and our everchanging lives.
Chaos is all around us, and it can stress us out. It causes anxiety, depression, frustration, anger, procrastination, constant distraction, and the seeking of comforts like social media, food, shopping, games and more.
But what if we didn’t need to run to comfort or fear the chaos?
What if we could just be still, and find calmness and stillness with the uncertainty swirling around us?
A member of my Fearless Training Program said he would like to “dance with chaos.” I think that’s a beautiful idea. Let’s embrace the uncertainty. Practice with it. Dance with it, and let this practice be joyful!
A Joyful Practice in Chaos
So how can we practice mindfulness in the middle of chaos? How can we make it joyful?
For me, it looks something like this.
First, you give yourself space to be present with the chaos. I stood in the middle of the storm, because I was excited to see what it was like. I intentionally called it “meditating” because my intention was to be as present as possible with whatever happened. In your daily life, that might look like just stopping in the middle of your busy workday, at any moment, and dropping into the present moment so you can feel what the chaos feels like.
Second, you find the courage to be completely present with the felt experience of the chaos. In the storm, part of that was feeling the wind and rain on my skin, noticing the dramatic light that was filtering through the storm clouds, noticing the amazing tropical jungle in the small valley below me, and the movement of the trees and flowers surrounding me. But there was more than that: it was also the feeling of excitement in my chest, maybe a bit of uncertainty about whether something would fly and hit me on the head, which showed up as a small bit of fear radiating in my heart area. It was also the feeling of my body swaying, my leg muscles tensing, my chest expanding as I breathed. All of this is the felt experience of the moment. Not just my thoughts about it, but how it feels in my body. We can practice this in any moment.
Third, you relax into the chaos, and embrace it. Noticing how the chaos feels, you might notice any tension you have around it. For me, in the storm, there was tension around my safety (again, it was actually pretty safe), so I noticed this tension and relaxed those muscles. Relaxing my body, I let myself just surrender to it. Embrace it, as if it were an incredible gift. Again, we can practice this any moment. Right now, in fact, if you’d like to try it.
Fourth, you dance with it, joyfully. Once we relax around the chaos, and start to embrace it … we’re making friends with it. The uncertainty is no longer a thing to run from, or to resist, but is just a part of the experience of this moment. Of every moment. And so we can start to dance — let ourselves move through the chaos, in a loving, lovely, joyful way. What would it be like to play right now, in the middle of your uncertain life? What would it be like to be curious, and explore, like an adventurer? What would it be like to be grateful for this incredible moment of chaotic beauty? What would it be like to find the love, the openness, the swirling dancing musical movement in the middle of this storm?
We have the opportunity, every single day, even every moment, to be present with the storm of the world. To sit in stillness in the middle of the wind and downpour of life. We have the opportunity to be open to it, to dance with it, to even find the joy in the immense uncertainty that is our lives.
Let’s dance, my friends. Let’s love what is all around us.
A 2018 survey showed almost 80 percent of people broke their New Year’s resolution by the end of January. Habits expert James Clear, author of the New York Times bestseller “Atomic Habits,” joins "CBS This Morning" to help us get our resolutions back on track.
Re-energize your day or week with these inspiring quotes from some of the world's greatest thinkers.
Google CEO didn't know the answer to this tricky interview question, but his response revealed his wisdom
Imagine interviewing at Apple, and not knowing what iTunes was. Or walking into Nike, and never hearing of the Shox. That was the equivalent of what happened when Sundar Pichai, Google CEO, was interviewing for a VP of Product Management job at the tech giant 15 years ago.
In his interview, Pichai was asked what he thought of Gmail. There was just one problem. As detailed in a CNBC article, "Google had just announced the email service that very same day, on April 1. "I thought it was an April Fool's Day joke," Pichai said.
Obviously, he wouldn't have known about the new email platform -- the question was more than likely a test to see how he would respond.
At that point, Pichai had two options: He could have played it off, made something up, and acted like he had heard of Gmail, or do what he did instead.
Rather than trying to hide it, Pichai chose the high road and admitted that he couldn't comment because he had never used the product.
I've been in recruiting for eight years and I have to admit, that response took guts. Most candidates would have tried to backpedal and redirect the conversation to cover up their lack of experience. The ironic thing about that approach is that it almost always backfires.
While trying to conceal their weaknesses, they expose one of the greatest faults of all -- egoism. No one wants to work with a "know-it-all."
There are two essential interviewing lessons to learn from Pichai's response:
1. Companies can't help those who won't help themselves.
2. Honesty is the best policy.
Musician Jess Glynne open up about the songwriting process, and how writing multiple songs can lead to one single.
Freedom from fear leads to happiness, and happiness is what makes you perform your best at whatever you choose to do.
Dave Asprey, founder of the Bulletproof Brand and NYT bestselling author of multiple books, recently released his newest book, GAME CHANGERS: What Leaders, Innovators, and Mavericks Do to Win at Life.
It's got a lot of fascinating and useful ideas.
In this post, I'm going to highlight two you can immediately use.
1. Update your environment to change your personal evolution.
2. Gratitude re-wires your brain.