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Breastfeeding Your Baby May Result In Fewer Allergies

Katlyn Joy |23, March 2015


A new study from Henry Ford's Department of Public Health Sciences says that breastfeeding and other factors impact baby's immune system development and their susceptibility to asthma and allergies from what's in their gut. This study will be presented at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology held this year in Houston.

Dr. Christine Cole Johnson, PhD, MPH, chair of Henry Ford's Department of Public Health Sciences served as principal researcher of the study. She stated, "For years now, we've always thought that a sterile environment was not good for babies. Our research shows why. Exposure to these microorganisms, or bacteria, in the first few months after birth actually help stimulate the immune system."

She added, "The immune system is designed to be exposed to bacteria on a grand scale. If you minimize those exposures, the immune system won't develop optimally."

One of the most ideal ways to provide exposure to bacteria to infants early in life is through bacteria in a mother's breast milk. Babies who were breastfed had a wider range of gut bacteria, and a higher number of immune cells and thus were less likely to be affected by allergies or asthma.

These research findings from Henry Ford Hospital bolster the hygiene hypothesis theory which states that exposure in early childhood to microorganisms affects the development of the immune system and the onset of allergies. Within the gastrointestinal or GI tract is what scientists have dubbed a bacterial ecosystem composed of a collection of microorganisms called the gut microbiome. The gut microbiome influences immune system development and plays a role in the onset of diseases or conditions such as obesity, circulating disorders, autoimmune diseases and pediatric infection and allergies.

Besides Dr. Johnson, the research team was made up of experts from the University of Michigan, University of California-San Francisco, and George Regents University. This group of researchers have been on the cutting edge of research regarding the development of allergies and asthma early in life, and were responsible for Henry Ford's landmark study on how exposure to pets such as cats and dogs in the first year of an infant's life reduces the child's risk of allergies.

These latest findings are part of a series of six studies from Henry Ford's long term Wayne County Health, Environment, Allergy and Asthma Longitudinal Study or WHEALS. This research is funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and its purpose is to discover how environmental factors contribute to the development of early onset allergies and asthma, and to measure biological markers.

To understand this, researchers undertook six separate studies looking into whether nursing, maternal and birth factors affected the gut microbiome and allergic and asthmatic outcomes in infants. To that end, stool samples from the infants were taken and studied at one and six months of age. The gut microbiome's role in the development of regulatory T cells was also studied, since these cells are known to regulate the immune system.

A number of factors were found to vary a baby's gut microbiome patterns such as a mother's race and ethnicity, pets living in the home, type of birth as in vaginal or caesarean, baby's gestational age at birth, prenatal exposure and exposure to tobacco smoke after birth.

"The research is telling us that exposure to a higher and more diverse burden of environmental bacteria and specific patterns of gut bacteria appear to boost the immune system's protection against allergies and asthma," says Dr. Johnson.

A study from Denmark in May 2014 found that breastfeeding promotes the development of lactic acid bacteria in baby's gut and this gut flora enhances a child's immune system.

"We have become increasingly aware of how crucially important a healthy gut microbial population is for a well-functioning immune system. Babies are born without bacteria in the gut, and so it is interesting to identify the influence dietary factors have on gut microbiota development in children's first three years of life," says research manager at the National Food Institute, Tine Rask Licht.

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