New research is showing a strong link between the “good bacteria” that live in your child’s gut and a decreased likelihood your child will develop allergies or asthma.
The Link Between Gut Health and Allergies
“Good” gut bacteria play a key role not only in developing a healthy immune system in infants, but also in ensuring that the immune system functions properly. To confirm this, researchers analyzed stool samples from nearly 300 infants, age 1 month to 11 months old, finding three categories of bacterial and fungal makeup.
Then at age 2, their blood was tested for sensitivity to allergens.
What did they find?
Simply that infants with the highest risk for developing asthma and allergies had lower amounts of certain bacteria (like Bifidobacterium, Akkermansi, and Faecalibacterium) and higher amounts of certain fungi (like Candida and Rhodotorula) in the gut. This group had an increased risk for allergen sensitivities and for receiving an asthma diagnosis by age 4. (source)
The link stood strong even after scientists accounted for risk-reducing factors like having a dog in the home, which helps create immunity to dander, and breastfeeding, which fosters “good” bacteria in the gut. So, it’s important that you ensure your child, and especially an infant, not only has the right bacteria but enough of them in his or her gut.
What does this mean for allergies going forward?
This kind of research may help medical professionals better understand why some kids get asthma and allergies.
“We have been working for over a decade trying to figure out why some children get asthma and allergies and some don’t,” said co-senior author Christina C. Johnson, PhD, MPH. “It seems that the microbial communities within the body could be the keystone to understanding this and several different immune diseases.” It also may open the door to further research on how these health conditions could potentially be prevented.
“Currently, children are typically six or seven years old when they are diagnosed with asthma, which has no cure and must be managed through medication,” said co-senior author Susan Lynch, PhD. “But if the genesis of the disease is visible as a disruption of gut microbiota in the very earliest stages of postnatal life, it raises an exciting question: Could we reengineer the community of microbes in at-risk infants to prevent allergic asthma from developing?”
How to promote beneficial gut bacteria in babies
According to the National Institutes of Health, babies pick up beneficial microbiota (the colonies of bacteria that live in our gut) from their mothers in the birth canal. This microbiota are believed to be essential for the development of a healthy immune system and metabolism. (source)
Babies born by Cesarean section may not pick up these same microbiota as babies born vaginally. However, emerging research suggests that swabbing C-section babies with their mothers’ vaginal fluids immediately after birth may enrich their microbiota to levels to be more typical of babies born vaginally. (source) The small study was published in Nature Medicine, and further research will be needed before this becomes a standard option in the delivery room.
Others steps you can take include breastfeeding your baby to help boost both the “good” gut bacteria and their immune systems, and also use fewer antibiotics, if possible. The latter is especially important as various studies suggest that giving infants antibiotics during their first year makes them more likely to develop food allergies compared to other children. This risk for food allergies was shown to increase with the number of antibiotic treatments. So, if your infant or child needs antibiotics, talk with your pediatrician about taking steps to protect his or her gut bacteria.
How to promote beneficial gut bacteria in older children
When it comes to fostering a healthy microbiome in your child, exposure to dirt and germs is a good thing. Fighting off minor invaders is how the body builds a stronger immune system. Time spent in nature is wonderful for a child’s physical and emotional wellbeing.
Fermented foods such as kimchee and sauerkraut are loaded with probiotics, but we all know kids can be picky with such strong flavors. Encourage them to eat yogurt with live or active cultures. Kefir and kombucha are also good choices. Even some soft cheeses such as gouda and cottage cheese contain beneficial microbes.
Cutting back on refined sugar and some grains is essential to good gut health. Many people with seasonal allergies report major improvement when gluten-containing grains or even complete avoidance of grains and sugar is followed particularly during allergy season.
The GAPS Diet, described in detail in Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride’s book Gut and Psychology Syndrome, is most commonly used in the treatment of leaky gut syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease, autism, ADHD, anxiety, and autoimmune disease.
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Image via Debbie Hunt, Treefrog Photography