Discover more from Learning by Proxy with Vivek Srinivasan
The Immunity About-Face
The Immune system is meant to fight germs. When it find that it has nothing left to do, it tried to find things that it can!
In a performance recorded in 1992, George Carlin says
There's another thing. Germs. Where did this sudden fear of germs come from?
In this country, have you noticed this? The media constantly running stories about all the latest infections, salmonella, E. coli, hantavirus, bird flu. And Americans, they panic easily, so now everybody's running around scrubbing this and spraying that and overcooking their food and repeatedly washing their hands, trying to avoid all contact with germs.
It's ridiculous and it goes to ridiculous lengths.
In prisons, before they give you a lethal injection, they swab your arm with alcohol. It's true. Well, well they don't want you to get an infection. And you can see their point. Wouldn't want some guy to go to hell and be sick. It would take a lot of the sportsmanship out of the whole execution.
Fear of germs, why these fucking pussies. You can't even get a decent hamburger anymore. They cook the shit out of everything now because everybody's afraid of food poisoning. Hey, where's your sense of adventure? Take a fucking chance, will you? You know how many people die in this country from food poisoning every year? Nine thousand. That's all. It's a minor risk. Take a fucking chance, bunch of goddamn pussies.
Besides, what do you think you have an immune system for? It's for killing germs! But it needs practice. It needs germs to practice on. So listen. If you kill all the germs around you and live a completely sterile life, then when germs do come along, you're not going to be prepared. And never mind ordinary germs. What are you going to do when some super virus comes along that turns your vital organs into liquid shit? I'll tell you what you're going to do, you're going to get sick, you're going to die and you're going to deserve it because you're fucking weak and you've got a fucking weak immune system.
All right. Let me tell you a true story about immunization, okay?
When I was a little boy in New York City in the 1940s, we swam in the Hudson River, and it was filled with raw sewage, okay? We swam in raw sewage, you know, to cool off. And at that time, the big fear was polio. Thousands of kids died from polio every year. But you know something? In my neighborhood, no one ever got polio. No one, ever. You know why? Because we swam in raw sewage. It strengthened our immune systems. The polio never had a prayer. We were tempered in raw shit.
So, personally I never take any special precautions against germs. I don't shy away from people who sneeze and cough. I don't wipe off the telephone. I don't cover the toilet seat.
And if I drop food on the floor, I pick it up and eat it. I eat it. Yes I do. Even if I'm at a sidewalk cafe in Calcutta, the poor section, on New Year's morning during a soccer riot.
And you know something, in spite of all that so-called risky behavior, I never get infections. I don't get them. I don't get colds, I don't get flu, I don't get headaches, I don't get upset stomachs. And you know why? Because I got a good, strong immune system and it gets a lot of practice.
My immune system is equipped with the biological equivalent of fully automatic military assault rifles with night vision and laser scopes. And we have recently acquired phosphorus grenades, cluster bombs, and anti-personnel fragmentation mines. So, when my white blood cells are on patrol, reconnoitering my bloodstream, seeking out strangers and other undesirables, if they see any, ANY suspicious-looking germs of any kind, they don't fuck around! They whip out the weapons, they wax the motherfucker, and deposit the unlucky fellow directly into my colon! Into my colon! There's no nonsense! There's no Miranda warning, there's none of that three strikes and you're out shit. First defense, BAM! Into the colon you go.
Our bodies are equipped with the ability to protect us. The immune system is constantly on the lookout for intruders and is capable of handling them without our knowledge. But what do you suppose the immune system does if it has nothing to fight against?
Have you heard the saying “An empty mind is a devil’s workshop?”
My grandmother did not know what an allergy was. The world seems to be filled with allergies today. When I was a kid, nothing came with an allergy warning. Nothing. We used to eat what we pleased, most of it bought off the sidewalk including our fresh vegetables.
If it seems like your seasonal allergies are getting worse over time, you're probably not wrong. Estimates are that 30 to 40% of the world's population now have some form of allergy, and medical anthropologist Theresa MacPhail says allergic reactions — including everything from hay fever to eczema and asthma — are growing in the U.S. and around the world.
Food allergies form an entire category unto themselves.
More of the population has food allergies than ever before – and around the world, they are sending more and more people to hospital. One large-scale review of hospital admissions data found anaphylaxis cases on the rise in the US, Australia and Europe, among other regions. In the US, hospital visits for food allergy increased threefold from 1993 to 2006. Between 2013 and 2019, England saw a 72% rise in the number of hospital admissions for children caused by anaphylaxis, from 1,015 admissions to 1,746.
More and more people seem to struggling with allergies today. The kinds of reactions can be varied in type and intensity.
The environment in which the human body evolved has remained steady for millennia. In the last couple of hundred years, medicine and chemistry together have been widely altering every facet of our lives. The way our food is grown, the way it is processed, the prevalence of highly processed low fibre foods, the environment we live in, the manner in which we clean our homes everything has changed!
Our bodies contain trillions of micro-organisms. Each organism has a specific role to play. Your digestive system is a Petri dish of organisms on steroids. They are the ones that help absorb the nutrients in the food into our body by breaking them down at record pace.
When we change the kind of foods we supply to our body, the interaction between the food and these microbes are affected.
Helicobacter Pylori serves as a good example.
H. pylori plays as a commensal in the human gastric microbiome. Recent evidence has highlighted the role of H. pylori as an immune modulator with increasing evidence of an inverse association between H. pylori colonization and immune-mediated disorders including asthma and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).
Too much H. pylori can cause ulcers in the stomach and too little can cause Oesophageal Cancer. It needs to be stimulated appropriately. Not too much, not too little.
Similarly with our immune system…
The idea is that for many children in the wealthy world, a lack of exposure to bacteria, viruses, and allergens prevents the normal development of the immune system, ultimately increasing the chance of disorders within this system down the road. This is called the hygiene hypothesis.
“a lack of exposure to bacteria, viruses, and allergens may prevent the normal development of the immune system”
"A child's immune system needs education, just like any other growing organ in the human body," says Erika von Mutius, a pediatric allergist at the University of Munich and one of the first doctors to research the idea. "The hygiene hypothesis suggests that early life exposure to microbes helps in the education of an infant's developing immune system." Without this education, your immune system may be more prone to attacking the wrong target — in the case of autoimmune diseases, yourself.
The immune system is just taking to attacking anything that comes along.
As sanitation and cleanliness have improved, food allergy rates have increased. The thinking is that with fewer germs and parasites to counteract, the immune system starts to turn against harmless things like allergens. But not every germ is equally important in this regard. There are specific benign, even helpful, microorganisms that evolved alongside humans and may play a crucial role in regulating the immune system: the so-called “old friends.” As people spend more time in highly sanitized environments, they are less likely to meet their old friends.
The problem that many people have with the Hygiene Hypothesis is that it makes it seem like we all need to live in squalor which is not the case.
Having said that constantly dousing your hands in alcohol is also not doing a world of good. The situation was bad before covid, it has become worse since.
"You've probably heard that we don't let kids eat enough dirt. They don't play in enough dirt. They're not around enough germs," she says. "We have seen that people who send their children to daycare centers, there's something about being in a daycare center that is also protective."
By around [age] 3, your immune system is kind of set up and it's very hard to change it after that point, but it's very malleable before that point, which is why early exposures to things seems to be so protective. The landmark studies that support the hygiene hypothesis were done actually in Switzerland and Germany, where they [studied] children who were regularly exposed to dust in animal barns — and it's interesting because the animals seem to be a key component. So if you're living on a farm with livestock and you're a baby and you're being carried by your mom in and out of this barn where there are pigs and cows and ducks and dogs and whatever, you tend to have very low rates of sensitization and allergic response in those adults once they grow up.
We need to figure out how to expose ourselves to natural environments and bacteria that have evolved with us for several millennia. Not just children but also adults need ample exposure for us to remain healthy and free of allergies caused by an immunity system that has nothing to do.
Maybe the next time you clean your kitchen counter, don’t use chemicals.