The lack of exposure to nature may be increasing the incidence of asthma and other allergies among city dwellers, according to a Finnish study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
In the study, the scientists state that certain bacteria—found in other studies to be beneficial for the development and maintenance of the human immune system—are abundant in rural environments.The team collected skin samples from 118 Finnish teenagers and found that those who lived on farms or near forests had higher diversity of bacteria and were less sensitive to allergies.
Ilkka Hanski, author of the study, states these bacteria are beneficial because they promote the microbiome – the multitude of microorganisms forming colonies inside the body and on the skin, but without causing disease. He further explained that while there are germs everywhere, the microbes in natural or rural environments appear to be more beneficial.
The study also allowed the team to identify a group of bacteria, known as gammaproteobacteria that have a “special” function. One type of gammaproteobacteria, Acinetobacter, was “strongly associated with the development of anti-inflammatory molecules.”
The study revealed that the greater the amount of this particular bacterium in your skin, the greater the individuals’ immune responses capable of suppressing inflammatory reactions (to pollen, animals, etc.). The gamma proteobacteria tend to be more prevalent in plant environments such as forests and agricultural lands, than in urban environments.
Dr. Hanski says “urbanization is a relatively recent phenomenon for most of human evolution; we interact in an area we now call the natural environment. Urbanization can be seen as a missed opportunity for many people to interact with the natural environment and its biodiversity, including the communities of microbes”.
Hanski admits that it is not possible to reverse the global trend of urbanization, but that there are a number of options to increase contact with natural environments. He emphasized the importance of preserving natural areas outside of urban areas, and for city planning to include green spaces, green belts and green infrastructures.
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