What would you say if I told you that kids who were more exposed to germs and dirt have fewer allergies than those raised in so-called “hygienic environments”? It’s true!

Studies prove that children raised in developing countries and who are more exposed to bacteria from dirt, animals, etc. are actually less likely to develop allergies (and related conditions) than those who live in more developed countries such as oh, you know, the United States! So what gives? How is this even possible? Well, the effect—known as the hygiene hypothesis—takes us back to…you guessed it! The gut.

When children live in ultra-clean environments (think antibacterial soaps and spotless countertops) they may be safer from certain pathogens, but they are also deprived of the helpful bacteria that work in the gut to educate the immune system. Without these beneficial bacteria, the immune system does not learn how to distinguish the good guys from the bad guys, and so allergic responses are triggered by normally common visitors in the digestive tract, the airways, and the skin.

So how can we stop this vicious cycle? While research is still ongoing, experts point out that one way to help is by recommending that pregnant women take a probiotic supplement during pregnancy to replenish the beneficial bacteria in their gut as well as those of their babies. I’d say they’re right on track!