Can Probiotics Prevent Childhood Allergies?
Probiotics—”good” bacteria found in healthy mammals’ intestinal tracts—help regulate digestion and control the harm done by infectious bacteria and yeasts. New research shows that giving probiotics to pregnant women and their babies is safe and may prevent infections. However, it’s unlikely that they can curb the recent increase in childhood allergies.
Lower exposure to bacteria in early childhood may stop the immune system from developing as it should. Allergic children also often have different types of bacteria in their intestines, specifically, less lactobacilli and bifidobacteria.
A team from the University Central Hospital of Helsinki, Finland decided to investigate whether probiotic supplements could add these missing bacteria.
The researchers gave either a probiotic mixture (2 lactobacilli, bifidobacteria, and propionibacteria) or a placebo at random to 1,223 mothers whose infants were thought to be at high risk of allergies, for the last month of their pregnancy. Once born, their babies were given the same mixture plus a prebiotic galacto-oligosaccharide from birth until they reached six months.
At five years old, the children were examined for symptoms of eczema, food allergy, allergic rhinitis (hay fever), and asthma. The probiotics did not protect children from allergies, except those who had been born by Caesarean section. This group had a 53 percent lower chance of developing an allergic disease.
The study is published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.
Researcher Dr. Mikael Kuitunen said that “it is possible that stronger and longer stimulation of the infant immune system possibly by varying the strains of bacteria, may result in better allergy-preventive effects.”
The same team previously found a beneficial effect of probiotics and prebiotics against food allergy and eczema, but these new results cast doubt on the earlier findings. They have also investigated the long-term safety of giving probiotic and prebiotic treatment to newborn infants, and its impact on infection rates. They say that “live probiotic bacteria and dietary prebiotic oligosaccharides (together termed synbiotics) are increasingly are being used in infancy, but evidence of long-term safety is lacking.”