“Back in my day, no-one was allergic to anything!” (Granny, aged 93).
Can you relate to this? Older relatives making sweeping statements about the lack of allergic disease in their own childhood…?
You might assume that your granny is seeing her past through some pretty strong ‘rose-tinted glasses’, but, the truth is, your granny is actually kinda right! The prevalence of allergic disease really has increased drastically over the last few decades and a lot of scientific research is going on behind-the-scenes to see why this is, and what we can do about it (1).
Are We Too Clean?
One theory for this increase in allergic disease, which includes eczema, asthma and food allergy, is that we have become too ‘clean’…This is known as the ‘hygiene hypothesis’ and it suggests that, by over-sterilising the environment around our babies, we are preventing them from being exposed to immune-stimulating pathogens in early life, which can then go on to increasing allergic disease later in life (1).
Our Super Organ: The Gut
Other potential factors that may have triggered this increase in allergies include the frequent use of antibiotics, increased consumption of ultra-processed foods, limited time in nature/increased urbanisation, and the growing number of c-section births (2). These factors are all linked to our so-called ‘progression’ as a society, and it is probably no small coincidence that they all also really impact on the composition of our gut microbiome (2). Our gut is essential for proper immune functioning, tolerance, and programming in the newborn days, and it is thought that early gut dysbiosis, or imbalance, may contribute to an increased risk of allergic disease (2).
Healthy Gut vs Allergic gut
This relationship between our gut microbiome and the development of allergies has become a hot topic in scientific research (1). Studies have found really distinct differences between the microbes in allergic children’s poo, compared to those in non-allergic children’s poo (1). In general, allergic babies have less Bifidobacteria and more Clostridia strains of bacteria than non-allergic children (1). Whilst it’s tricky to tell whether these differences in the microbiota cause the allergies, or whether the allergies cause the differences in microbiota, the current data suggests that it’s more likely the former, further emphasising the importance of early life gut development (1).
Bifidobacterium: An Allergy Hero
Many studies have investigated the potential of probiotic supplementation during pregnancy and early life to reduce allergic disease in babies (1). One interesting study looked at the effect of supplementation with Bifidobacterium, specifically B. longum BB536, and B. breve M-16V, for the mum in the last month of pregnancy, and their baby in the first 6 months of their life, and found a significant reduction in their development of eczema and allergic disease when compared to non-supplemented babies (1).
Synbiotic supplementation involves the synergistic action of combining a prebiotic and a probiotic, so that the sum of effect is greater than the two effects taken separately (2). Research on babies born via C-section has shown that supplementing infant formula with a combination of the probiotic Bifidobacterium, and prebiotics like GOS (galactooligosaccharides) and FOS (fructooligosaccharides), can help to resolve any imbalances in the gut of high risk babies (3). Although there is still a lot of research to be done in this area, the current results indicate that supplementing with Bifidobacterium and a prebiotic may be effective in the prevention of allergy development (2).
Nurture the Gut
What this all comes back to, time-and-time-again, is the critical importance of nurturing our babies’ gut microbiomes in as many different ways as possible… Allergic disease is multi-factorial and super-complicated, but small choices made along the path to parenthood may help to swing the odds in your bub’s favour for a healthy and allergy-free life. If you come from an allergy-prone family, or feel that your bub may be high risk, specific probiotics may be worth discussing with a health practitioner.
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