Scientists look to babies’ gut bacteria to predict their asthma and allergy risk

Family Health

By pH health care professionals

Products that promote “good bacteria” continue to be popular among health-seekers in supermarkets, with probiotic drinks like kombucha gaining notoriety. Even beyond digestion, the various microorganisms that live in your gut (called your “gut microbiota”) may affect things like your mood and how often you get sick. So it’s no surprise that scientists wanted to find out how gut bacteria in babies affected their likelihood for developing asthma and allergies.

The premise?

Scientists suspected babies’ gut microbiota may well affect how their immune systems develop. So they analyzed stool samples from nearly 300 infants age 1-11 months old, finding three categories of bacterial and fungal makeup. Then at age 2, their blood was tested for sensitivity to allergens.

So which babies were more likely to develop allergies and asthma?

They found that the highest risk group had lower amounts of certain bacteria (like Bifidobacterium, Akkermansia, and Faecalibacterium) and higher amounts of certain fungi (like Candida and Rhodotorula). This group had increased risk for allergen sensitivities and for receiving an asthma diagnosis by age 4. The link stood strong even after scientists accounted for risk-reducing factors like having a dog in the home and breastfeeding.

What does this mean 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 a number of 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 has to 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?"

The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and appeared online on September 12, 2016 in Nature Medicine.

Are there ways to promote beneficial gut bacteria for babies?

According to the National Institutes of Health, babies pick up beneficial microbiota from their mothers in the birth canal. These microbiota are believed to be essential for the development of a healthy immune system and metabolism.

Babies born by cesarean section do 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 more typical of babies born vaginally. The small study was published in Nature Medicine, and further research will be needed before this becomes a standard option in the delivery room.

Be proactive

Talk to a knowledgeable health care professional or patient advocate if you have questions about how to be proactive to reduce your baby’s risk for certain health conditions, like asthma or allergies.

Enjoy Your Healthy Life!

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