Are Amish allergy-proof?

A new study seems to show that Amish children are “remarkably immune” to both allergies and asthma.  Researchers compared a group of Indiana Amish children to Swiss children from both farm and non-farm environments.

Swiss farm kids were over 3 times as likely to show a predisposition to allergies than Amish children, while Swiss non-farm children were over 6 times as likely.

The Amish asthma rates were also less than half those of the non-farm Swiss kids, and significantly less than the Swiss farm cohort’s.

There’s a good bit of speculation as to why this may be the case: from genetic causes to raw milk to greater exposure to allergens and dirt on the farm. From the article:

“The rates are very, very low,” said Dr. Mark Holbreich, the study’s lead author. “So there’s something that we feel is even more protective in the Amish” than in European farming communities.

What it is about growing up on farms — and Amish farms in particular — that seems to prevent allergies remains unclear.

Researchers have long observed the so-called “farm effect” — the low allergy and asthma rates found among kids raised on farms — in central Europe, but less is known about the influence of growing up on North American farms.

Holbreich, an allergist in Indianapolis, has been treating Amish communities in Indiana for two decades, but he noticed that very few Amish actually had any allergies.

Fascinating story, especially since it seems like you hear more and more about allergies these days.  I’ve never really had any allergy issues, though I know some people suffer greatly, especially this time of year with pollen and other allergens flying about the atmosphere.

Amish AllergyWhile I’m sure some seasonal allergy sufferers have it pretty bad, year-round food allergies seem like they’d be worse in a way. I’d hate to have an allergy for something I love to eat: peanuts and shellfish, for instance (though usually not together).  That would knock a little joy off life’s tally right there.

I also didn’t realize you could develop allergies later in life until just recently.  My grandmother brought this to light with a skin reaction she’s been enduring.  I’ve heard people blame the high-powered soaps and hypoallergenic products we use as part of the problem.  I have no idea on the science but perhaps there’s something to that.

What do you think–are allergies getting worse in general?  Anyone develop an allergy post-childhood?  And how do you allergy sufferers out there cope?

Ragweed photo: Dan Iggers/flickr

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    31 Comments

    1. Betsy

      I’ve felt for a while that the fact that some modern kids are kept indoors so much and their environment is hyper-clean is partly responsible for the increase in allergies. But that’s just my uneducated guess.

    2. Dessa

      I agree that modern kids are kept in indoors much more than when I was growing up. I see less and less kids outside playing except for the short times they are not outside at schools.

    3. Richard Stevick

      My observations

      The Amish that I know are far more relaxed about food safety and hygiene-cleanliness and food safety issues than are my adult children and their peers. I am amazed at how hyper-careful our sons are concerning picnic food, dropped food items, and super-sanitized hand washing. My experiences as a child and my subsequent travel to developing countries make me wonder, like Betsy, if modern parents are so careful that their children fail to develop antibodies or whatever that will help prevent later health problems in adulthood. Obviously, I’m not advocating a cavalier attitude towards cleanliness and food safety. I’m just wondering if the more relaxed attitude of my Amish friends helps ‘inoculate’ their children from allergies and other subsequent ailments.

    4. Margaret

      I was fairly healthy as a kid – and I played outside a lot! Mom kept everything very clean, too. She always said that was what Germans/Sweds did! 😉 I never had any food allergies, either.

      I didn’t develop asthma until I was in my 30s. As far as allergies, I didn’t become lactose intolerant until I was in my 30s, too, and now I’m also allergic to peanuts. Other than that the only thing I’m allergic to are medicines. There are hardly any antibiotics I can take, or pain medications. So, I spend most of my time praying I DON’T get sick or hurt! teehee!

      However, I also was diagnosed with lupus in my late 30s (which in looking back at my life, I probably had since my late 20s, when everything health-wise started to fall apart).

    5. Roberta

      I think it is both nature and nurture. Allergies run in my family but the old folks who didn’t know about antihistamines and probably wouldn’t have used them if they did, had fewer allergies than the younger generations. The old folks were working on the farm before they were old enough to go to school while the young folks have been kept super clean and wrapped in cotton like fine china.

    6. michele

      Food Allergies not just joy killers

      Yes, I think it is that we live inside four walls almost 100% of the time. We think animals and dirt are dangerous but not the chemicals in our carpets, varnishes and cleaning products.
      One thing some people have success with is eating honey that is made from your area. This gives exposure to the plants/flowers in your area and helps to be less sensitive to those plants. I eat honey form my area just because its delicious 🙂 not because of allergies. I have almost no allergies anymore.

      1. Interesting Michele. And yes food allergies can kill more than joy. If I had a severe food allergy I don’t know if I’d ever feel totally comfortable eating in a restaurant. About the only thing that bothers me in food is MSG and I’m not sure you would even call that an allergy.

    7. Anne

      We’ve had an interesting experience with allergies. When my son (who became Amish) was very small he was diagnosed with asthma. It seemed mild and we didn’t have to do a great deal to keep it under control. But by the time he was 6 he had bad allergies, especially to mold and dust. The growing seasons were miserable for him. At the time we lived in Taos, NM, known for it’s tempting outdoor life. My kids played outside all day long, and his love of the outdoors overcame his misery with allergies. A few years later we noticed that his allergies were almost not noticeable. We expected lots of trouble when we moved to VA, where it’s a known negative of living here. (The mantra is, “if you didn’t have allergies before coming to VA, you’ll have them after you’ve been here a year or two!”). But he continued his outdoor life and didn’t seem too much worse. Now, being Amish, I have not heard him complain about allergies at all. And this is now 6 years! But he does not necessarily think the Amish have a healthy diet, except that they eat more fresh garden produce than the rest of us. They DO use lots of sugar in their foods, and he does his best to avoid that.

    8. Naomi

      healthy gut = few or no allergies

      An important component of you immune system is your gut and the microflora (good bacteria) that reside in it, digesting your food and even creating the vitamins that your body needs to be healthy. If your gut flora is inadequate, you are more susceptible to illness, disease, and all types of chronic conditions. Elements of our modern lifestyle compromise our gut flora (destroy both the bad AND the good bacteria), including use of the pill, cesarean birth, bottle feeding (especially formula), antibiotics, anti-bacterial soaps and other products, lack of exposure to good old-fashioned dirt, pasteurization and irradiation of foods to make them safe, refrigeration, stress, lack of sleep, etc.

      A quick look at this list reveals why Amish kids would have much higher resilience against allergies and similar conditions than their more “modern” peers.

      Infants get their first dose of bacterial flora from their moms during natural birth and early breast feeding. Taking probiotics, especially after a course of antibiotics contributes to healthy gut flora as does eating cultured foods like yogurt, and fermented foods like traditional sauerkraut. For someone with a healthy immune system, daily exposure to all kinds of bacteria (yay for that barnyard!) is beneficial. If you want to know more, the book Gut and Psychology Syndrome by Natasha Campbell-McBride, MD is a great resource.

    9. Sara Mandal-Joy

      barefoot?

      There has been a lot of alternative research about the value of going barefoot, how such “grounding” helps the body attune to nature, and a number of folks adopting this practice have overcome allergies and had improvement in a variety of auto-immune conditions. Just do a search on the terms barefoot and grounding and you’ll come up with a lot of info. My Amish friends go barefoot whenever possible. The kids run around on gravel or whatever with no problem – soles are really thick and tough. Noah, the father of the crew, has from time to time come across the fields and the highway between his place and mine, as the crow flies about a mile, in his barefeet. They wear shoes when they have to, though even in winter you’ll see the kids running around barefoot when they can get by with it. Sara

      1. Sara I’ve always wondered how long it takes to build up a tough Amish foot like that 🙂 Is it a multiple-season process, or do the soles toughen up to that level after a few weeks in the spring? How long would it take to tranform my pampered English feet into a hard-soled Amish-grade bare foot?

      2. Well, it hasn’t helped my allergies to go barefoot. I am one of those people who cannot stand socks and shoes and I am barefoot as much as I can. At work they laugh at me because all of spring and summer they hear my bare feet making that *splashy* sound instead of the sound of a shoe. I go barefoot outdoors as well even in town and have done so since I was old enough to be able to pry those shoes off me.

        My mother, my middle brother and I have a lot of allergies and I am sure there is a genetic factor in our case since problems with the heart and lungs run in my mother’s family. I have also heard that a lot of cleaning make you more at risk as well as being indoors. Since Sweden and Finland have high numbers of allergies being indoors has been used to explain this. In winter we simply cannot be a outdoors as much as in a more hospital climate. Estonia though, has very low rates of allergies but similar climate and there they have theorized that their high intake of lacto-fermented vegetables might be the reason. Allergies are probably due to many factors so it is hard to say what tips someone into having allergies while another person is fine.

    10. Charles Oliver

      I was very excited to see this post today! I have a 2 month old daughter and our pediatrician was talking to us about this very thing. My wife has ulcerative colitis which is an autoimmune disease similar to an allergy. The doctor was telling us that this is very uncommon in the lesser developed countries where hygiene is less of a concern. He told us that lately they have been experimenting with trying to treat this type of disease by intentionally infecting the patient with a parasite and the results have been good. This got me wondering if there was a higher immunity among the amish, so I find this very interesting. Do you know how many people were surveyed?

      1. Study numbers

        Here’s the bit from the article Charles. A lot fewer Amish families but I’m assuming it was a statistically significant number for the purposes of the study:

        “The researchers surveyed 157 Amish families, about 3,000 Swiss farming families, and close to 11,000 Swiss families who did not live on a farm — all with children between the ages of six and 12.”

    11. Matt from CT

      It’s a multi-part puzzle — I’m sure eating *real* food and exposure to the outdoors is one part of it.

      They also likely have less exposure to household chemicals. Not none; I fully recognize the Amish are not earthy crunchy Orthodox hippies. There will be some exposure to household chemicals, some to farm chemicals, some to processed edible substances (I’m loath to call much of it “food.”) But a lot less then the typical Western consumerist family.

      Obsessive cleanliness probably does negatively impact the immune system as well.

      Lactose intolerance isn’t an allergy, but it is definitely a gut microbiology issue. I have a moderate case of it. Raw milk works well for me, and I make a lot of homemade yogurt (which I actually prefer to make it with pasteurized/homogenized from another local farm but which is very fresh for…raw milk alone doesn’t seem to setup well for me. Half pasteurized/homogenized and half raw does make a good blend too.)

    12. Alice Mary

      I’ve heard the same as Michelle, about using (consuming) local honey to keep allergy-free to some extent.

      I grew up “sickly”, with rheumatic fever, pneumonia, and countless bouts of tonsillitis before the age of 5. I have MVP, too (mitral valve prolapse—a type of regurgitation of blood in the heart due to a “floppy valve”, from the rheumatic fever). If it weren’t for penicillin, I might not be here today.

      However, when I was about 27, I had an abcessed tooth. The dentist prescribed penicillin. In a day or so, I broke out in a rash (NOT hives, just a red, itchy rash) on my face. I called the dentist & he had me come in to look at me, and told me I was obviously allergic to penicillin…all of a sudden! Go figure! Now, I have to use more expensive antibiotics—thankfully, that’s a rare occasion! (My health turned around for the better after my tonsils were taken out at age 6. They had apparently become a source of infection themselves—constantly swollen, infected. The same happened with my two kids.)

      I agree we’re probably a little “too” clean, but we’ve had an unusually bad outbreak of whooping cough here this winter, and hand-washing, sneezing or coughing into your elbow, etc., are drilled into us all, kids & adults. There’s also speculation that fewer kids are being immunized (quite a few home-schoolers in the area). As far as germs go, no man (or woman, or kid) is an island, I guess!

    13. Nancee

      We Americans are exposed to a gross number of chemicals, pesticides, chemical fertilizers in the food chain. Genetically modified foods are common. The FDA is grossly negligent in overseeing quality control in our food, the containers that “house” our foods, cosmetics, and just about everything we consume. High levels of arsenic are being discovered in rice, peanuts, soybeans, and numerous other foods. Plastics are known causes of cancer. BPA, pthalates, dioxins, etc…….. Europe and other countries have standards that ban the chemicals that are commonplace here in America. Formaldehyde is found in numerous everyday items. It’s no wonder our population suffers from allergies, asthma, and a host of other illnesses.

      The Amish live like our ancestors did, without pesticides and chemical fertilizers, hormone disruptors, and beef, chicken, turkey, pork, etc. raised on hormones, antibiotics, and in horrific living conditions. Their chickens are free range, the beef is grass fed, their crops aren’t sprayed with pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Cow manure is their form of fertilizer.

      I’ve virtually eliminated all chemicals in my household. The only cleaning items I use are white vinegar, baking soda and hydrogen peroxide, and I only use pure plant-based dish detergents and laundry detergent. I buy organic foods and do not buy food in cans which are lined with BPA, a toxin known to cause cancer. I buy foods in glass containers or fresh.

      We could learn so much from the Amish way of life. If it were possible I’d leave everything behind and move to a community near the Amish and adapt to their pure way of living.

      1. Matt from CT

        >The Amish live like our ancestors did, without pesticides and
        >chemical fertilizers, hormone disruptors,

        You’re incorrect Nancee.

        Most Amish farmers use “conventional” synthetic fertilizers and pesticides just like their highly mechanized neighbors do.

        As I wrote in their post, it’s likely their exposure to household chemicals is less then a typical American family; but that’s a product more of limited consumption and frugality then a desire to avoid them for health effects.

        That is of course generalized — there are Amish who do farm organically, and do share concerns over health over modern chemicals that some non-Amish do. But like a cross-section of the broader American society, avoiding chemicals for the sake of avoidance isn’t something most do.

        From your description of how you run your house, you probably have a significantly lower exposure then the average Amish family. (BTW…I’ve been amazed just how well vinegar works as a household cleaner since I’ve made the switch; it’s my first go-to now.)

        1. Matt from CT

          I should have explained this in the last post:

          Their exposure to farm chemicals is likely less do to a matter of scale compared to “conventional” neighbors; they simply have smaller farms, not that they avoid them.

          At the same time, in some ways they may be more vulnerable to pesticides drifting in the wind compared to a farmer in a modern enclosed tractor cab with air conditioning.

          http://farmbusiness.blogspot.com/2011/07/horse-progress-days.html

          …has a pic you probably don’t want to see. The article mentions increasing adoption of “no till” by the Amish. While I&J in Lancaster County makes a horse drawn cover crop roller based on a design the Rodale Institute (parent of Organic Gardening magazine) originally used with tractors…most often when you hear “no till” that equates to using glyphosate (RoundUp) to kill the existing vegetation prior to planting.

          1. Nancee
          2. When I hear “No Till” I think of Ruth Stout… Very awesome lady who gardened organically and without tilling her gardens well into her 90s..

        2. Nancee

          Matt, thanks for the correction, and keep up with the white vinegar!

      2. I wish I could remember where I read that anyone can become allergic to anything at anytime. Yes, we can develop allergies later in life. Even though, when I was growing up, we used harsh, homemade lye soap, today the only laundry detergent that I can tolerate is the stuff without dyes or perfumes.

        I wonder if Holbreich studied the Amish in terms of drug sensitivities or allergies? I have always been sensitive to the anesthesia that the dentists normally use with epinephrin in it. I tend to faint as it enters my blood stream.

        Also, it seems that many of the women in my family become psychologically distressed with the use of narcotic painkillers. My mother, my aunt, two of my sisters, myself — and these are the ones I know of. It would be interesting to find out if the Amish are more or less sensitive to drugs, given they don’t get them as often as their “English” counterparts.

        About asthma… I knew of two Amish girls who had it when they were children, but they both outgrew it. One of them had severe asthma. She seemed to have to fight for every breath she took. Her family had moved to Arizona for six months, where it cleared up during the time they were there, but as soon as they returned to Ohio, it started right back up again.

        Very interesting discussion, Erik.

        Saloma

        1. Saloma, thanks for sharing this, very interesting. Was Arizona a popular destination for Geuaga folks needing a change of climate, say for health reasons like you mention here? I’ve never had the sense that a lot of Amish go there, but know that some do.

    14. Eli S

      I am allergic to tree pollen. None of my siblings, all Amish, have any known allergies. I had two uncles, one had what was called hay fever way back then, the other had asthma. Yes, we did run all summer barefooted. I would still if I could develop tough enough feet. Welding demands good, tight shoes, however.
      My allergy was triggered by exposure to a chemical TDI, used in making polyurethane foam where I worked for about six years. I haven’t been around TDI for over forty years, but the allergy to trees persists.

    15. Carolyn B

      My only un-related to medical stuff allergy is to pollen from an unknown source. This began in college when one night I simply woke, clawing at my neck & back. Rash & hives sent me to the E.R. that night where I got a Benadryl shot. This has happened two more times with no clue asto what pollen I’m allergic to.

    16. Melissa H

      Uggg...allergies...

      I had a dairy allergy as a child, but out grew it around 2-3 years old–which pediatricians say is very common. However, two of my children have dairy allergies that they have not outgrown. People at church are always amazed when they offer my kids something to eat, and at 4 and 6 years old, they say, “I can’t, I’m allergic,” or they’ll ask, “Is it Micah-friendly?” (We’ve had to explain that phrase to a number of people!)

      I developed seasonal and an animal (dog) allergy when I was thirty. My poor little guy–one of them with a dairy allergy–also has seasonal allergies and spends a lot of time inside so his “eyes won’t itch and (so he won’t) get a cough.”

      I’m not a superclean freak…goodness, I’m not even much of a clean freak. I keep my house presentable–being a pastor’s wife you never know when someone will drop by unannounced. And the 5-second rule definately applies in my house. But I would have to agree that our (Englishers) antibacterial, superclean, afraid of every germ lifestyle has unintentinally caused more harm than good for our kids.

    17. I think I tend to believe more in the lack of microflora of our guts as a key element as to allergies..
      When i was a kid, I grew up in the country, running around barefoot, drank about 50% of my milk fresh from the dairy and I had no allergies as a child.. however I also grew up in a commercial agricultural area of South Texas where we were exposed to every sort of chemical known to man in the 60s.. defoliants (Agent Orange/Paraquat), herbicides pesticides, incecticides (DDT) & chemical fertilizers were the norm and Im sure poisoned our water in huge ways.

      In my later teens I became allergic to penicillin… deathly allergic… but I took it a lot in my early life due to frequent ear infections.. I go into immediate convulsions… scary…

      In my late 30s I started having allergies to pollens in North Texas.. and they’ve continued.. many trees, some grasses/weeds, dog & cat dander, dust…

      I have sensitivities to wheat (or at least commercial wheat products), the Solanaceae family (tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, eggplants) and milk products.. they dont cause a true allergy but they do give me problems.

      When I was 51, I developed asthma.. I was in North Texas visiting (I live in Ohio now) and came home with it after an illness/onset there.. Im actually going to a pulmonologist next week at the behest of my doctor…

      I’ve almost always eaten organic veggies since I was an adult , most that were grown by me.. I’ve rarely eaten many of the Industrial foods that have shown up in our grocery stores in the last 30 years.. or even before that since I wasnt raised on much grocery store food.

      I was raised on fresh food & wild game mostly.. and I continued that into my adulthood..
      I never jumped on the low fat or the antibacterial bandwagon… It angered me when I found out they use it in the dispensers at work.. they’re shown “bugs” become resistant to it and then where does it get you? Nowhere..

      In my 50s, I’ve finally started introducing more fermented foods into my diet.. I dont seem to do well on yogurt.. homemade or store-bought… I dont seem to do well on any dairy to be honest though I do eat it in small amounts occasionally. Cheeses dont seem to bother me as long as I stay with the fresher cheeses and not the aged cheeses…

      I’ve read this study regarding Swiss/Amish allergies before.. I find it quite interesting.

    18. P

      Vaccine Related

      Sorry. I’m responding to an old post. I’m Pro-Choice vaccinations, and always looking to increase my knowledge.

      Apparently peanut oil is used as an adjuvant in some vaccines. The more vaccines in the schedule, the higher amount of people allergic to peanuts. Is there a correlation? I know that the Amish receive less of the vaccinations that the rest of us receive. Did the Swiss?

    19. RR

      Amish are not vaccinated……………

    20. dkaj

      Food system

      Maybe someone has brought this up before, but the Amish generally are not eating processed foods. Its made from scratch. They raise their own chickens and butcher them and don’t bathe them in bleach. They don’t bleach their flour, they aren’t eating foods filled with preservatives and ingredients you can’t even pronounce as they are all processed and made in a lab with loads of toxic chemicals. How no one is looking at all of this beyond just exposures makes me cringe.
      the other thing is their homes aren’t filled with 100’s of different fragranced air fresheners, essential oil diffusers, ethonol gas exhaust coming from city traffic. All of these things add up. Yes, maybe genetically they are less at risk, but one has to look at the entire big picture, not just one thing. Also, these kids are outside alot getting lots of vitamin d working outside daily breathing in fresh air vs being stuck in buildings with poor ventilation. it’s many factors not just one. It’s a way of life.