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Nonlinearity Biol Toxicol Med. 2003 Apr;1(2):155-66.

Is the hygiene hypothesis an example of hormesis?

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  • 1ExxonMobil Biomedical Science, Inc., 1545 Route 22 East, P.O. Box 971, Annandale, NJ 08801-0971.


The "hygiene hypothesis" has been suggested to explain the rising incidence of allergic disorders in developed countries. The postulated mechanism is that infectious and/or microbial agents stimulate the immune system toward Th1 (allergy fighting) rather than Th2 (allergy promoting) response. This paper reviews the evidence related to early life infectious/microbial exposures and subsequent atopic disorders and evaluates whether these data suggest a hormetic effect. Our review indicates an insufficient and contradictory association for bacterial/viral infections, with protective effects being either absent or specific to certain infections and/or populations. Chronic, heavy parasitic burdens appear to confer protection against atopic disorders, but are associated with considerable pathology. Moreover, light parasitic burden may increase allergic responses (i.e., no "low dose" beneficial effect). In contrast, there is consistent evidence that general microbial exposures, particularly gut commensals, may be protective against allergy development, which is consistent with a hormetic effect (i.e., potentially beneficial effects at low doses and detrimental effects at high levels).


General microbial exposures in relation to the "hygiene hypothesis" may represent a hormetic effect, although further research with more rigorous study methods (i.e., prospective designs and measurement of exposure timing, dose, route, etc.) are needed.


allergies; atopy; hormesis; hygiene hypothesis; infection; parasites

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