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MARSHFIELD - Dairy farmers have a lot more bacteria in their noses and mouths than office workers, and those extra organisms probably help them stay healthier.

That's the finding of a study of 21 dairy farmers in Marathon County and 18 non-farmers who work in a nearby office setting, according to the Marshfield Clinic Research Institute.

The study is an early step in a larger research theme to determine whether farms and farm work can be tapped for their medicinal value.

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It's the first study showing that the bacteria found on bodies of healthy dairy farmers is more diverse than on non-farmers, the researchers say. Such "microbiota" diversity is believed to protect farmers against allergic and autoimmune diseases, not to mention common gastrointestinal distress.

One of the study's authors is cautiously optimistic about the results.

“We still do not know much about the microbial occupational exposure of farmers and this study provides some basic understanding of dairy farmers’ microbiome,” Sanjay Shukla said in a news release announcing the research findings. “But we need to do functional studies on repeated sampling on a larger cohort to understand the microbiome’s contribution to farmers’ overall health and disease.” 

Here's what the researchers do know:

  • The nasal microbiota of dairy farmers had 2.15 times more organisms than those found in nasal samples from non-farmers.
  • The oral samples from the dairy farmers group harbored 1.5 times more organisms.
  • The farmer group also had a lower abundance of microbes called Staphylococcus spp, some of which are "opportunistic" pathogens that colonize in their hosts, weakening their immune systems.

The study's authors believe that the larger diversity of bacteria for dairy farmers comes from their lifelong exposure to cows, manure, hay and other microorganism-rich elements of agricultural environments.

Microbe is a general term used to describe various life forms, including bacteria, fungi and viruses.

"Before birth, we have no microbes," the research institute news release notes. "Within a few years, we're covered in thousands of species of microbes ... which vary with gender, diet, climate, age, occupation and hygiene."

The dairy farmer study provides "a foundation for research into the farm-as-medicine concept, which examines both environmental risks and the health-building aspects of farm life," according to the news release.

“It explores the boundaries of what we consider ‘farm health,’ giving us a more complex, truer picture of how farm environments can be both hazardous and health-promoting,” project co-investigator, Casper “Cap” Bendixsen said in the release.

Future studies will analyze the link between overall health and the nasal and oral microbiomes of dairy farmers and non-dairy farmers. Researchers believe this study indicates that dairy farmers should have better health outcomes than non-dairy farmers and other professions, depending upon individual genetics and lifestyle choices.

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