The bacterium Helicobacter pylori thrives in the stomachs of half the world’s population, according to some estimates, and that’s not necessarily a good thing as it can cause gastritis, gastric and duodenal ulcers, and stomach cancer.
But don’t attack H. pylori just yet. A July 1, 2011 article in Science Daily reported that the microorganism might actually help prevent asthma. Scientists from Switzerland and Germany who recently published their findings in the Journal of Clinical Investigation were looking in particular at allergy-induced asthma, which has increased dramatically in the industrialized world. The research came out of concern that not just air pollution and smoking are contributing to allergic diseases, but also reduced exposure to infectious bacteria through new methods of hygiene and through possible overuse of antibiotics.
If children and others are exposed to H. pylori, that might actually be a protective measure in regard to asthma, said immunologists from the University of Zurich and allergy specialists from Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz.
The normal digestive process doesn’t kill H. pylori, the article explained. If the presence of the bacteria leads to infection, there aren’t always symptoms; however, doctors concerned about gastritis and ulcers might prescribe antibiotics anyway, as a precaution. Now the debate is whether H. pylori should be left alone.
One qualifier on the possible benefits of H. pylori: when the Swiss and German researchers tested their hypothesis on mice, they found that the immunological tolerance depended on how early the mice were infected. “Early infection impairs the maturation of the dendritic cells and triggers the accumulation of regulatory T-cells that are crucial for the suppression of asthma,” said University of Zurich researcher Anne Muller. The research also looked at the outcome of giving the mice antibiotics, which caused them to lose their resistance to asthma-inducing allergens and seemed to further support the need for a careful look at the overuse of antibiotics.
A study out of the New York University School of Medicine in 2008 also found a link between H. pylori and decreased incidence of asthma. Children ages 3 to 19 infected with H. pylori were 25 percent less likely to have asthma than uninfected children, the study found.
The roles of bacteria and the body’s immunological response continue to be studied, and sometimes the discussion turns to the “hygiene hypothesis,” which refers to modern society’s highly effective methods of cleanliness and whether those methods contribute to allergic disorders by giving the body too little to do in its fight against germs. Our natural immune systems instead overreact to foreign substances like dust, pollen and mold, the hypothesis contends.
Reviewed July 5, 2011
by Michele Blacksberg R.N.