The Microbiome and Food Allergies

baby and mom washing hands

 

What is the Microbiome?

The human body is actually an ecosystem with lots of bacteria living on or in us. Collectively, these bacteria are called our microbiome. Much of what we used to think our bodies did, like digestion, fighting infection, and even thinking is actually done in partnership with our microbiome. Think of these bacteria as our oldest friends. They work with us and have moved and grown with us for generations. 

The microbiome is magical because for hundreds of generations it has silently passed from mother to baby without anyone realizing. Your microbiome has changed with your family, and in many ways is as unique to you as your fingerprints or DNA. 

 

How Does Your Microbiome Relate to Food Allergies?

Studies have made it clear that our microbiome is a vital part of how our immune system self-regulates and stops overreaction — the underlying cause of allergies

There’s a lot we don’t know about the microbiome. But when scientists look at stool samples from people with Chron’s disease, dairy allergies, peanut allergies, eczema, etc., and compare the bacteria cocktail in those samples to healthy people without issues, they find big differences. 

We haven’t identified one correct or best combination of bacteria strains that make up a healthy gut. But in general, a healthier gut microbiome is more diverse, meaning it has many different bacteria strains and it has more of some specific Clostridia strains that reduce inflammation, create butyrate and improve the strength of the intestinal lining.

The Clostridia strains seem to release chemicals that tell our own immune cells to stay calm. Without the chemicals these bacteria release, our immune systems can make mistakes, like food allergies. 


What Affects Your Microbiome?

It is increasingly clear that the most critical time for your microbiome is early in development --  during pregnancy, delivery, and the first few months of infancy. 

Your microbiome is born with you. When a baby is born and passes through the birth canal, he picks up a coating of bacteria all over his skin, and in his stomach from the fluid he sucks in with the first cry.

We know Caesarean section births, where babies are not exposed to the bacteria-heavy vaginal tract, are linked to a weaker microbiome. We also know that transfer of microbiome bacteria can occur via breast milk, via skin to skin exposure, and from the mother’s saliva. 

The microbiome is fragile and needs the right foods at the right time to take root. Lastly, there’s an inter-generational effect. If a mother’s microbiome is depleted, from say, overuse of antibiotics, she will pass on less bacteria to her baby. 


Wipe Away the Hygiene Hypothesis  

Let’s get one thing straight — people aren’t developing allergies at a faster rate because we’re “too clean.” This is called the Hygiene Hypothesis, and it’s wrong.

The idea is that by limiting infections, the immune system is going haywire and causing allergies. To counteract this, some people think the key to stopping allergies is cleaning less and letting kids get sick. But keeping your house clean is incredibly important for keeping your kids healthy, and has no relation to whether or not your kid develops a food allergy. 

First, studies show that routine cleaning (even with antibacterial cleaners) does not lower bacteria exposure. It’s not possible to sterilize your house because people are always tracking in new dirt, shedding skin, and allowing in dust. 

Second, hand washing and cleaning food surfaces limits the spread of respiratory infections, colds, and the flu, as well as dangerous bacteria like e. Coli. Studies confirmed that having more colds does not protect against allergic disease, and having fewer colds does not lead to more food allergies. 

Overusing antibiotics kills bacteria inside your stomach, whereas cleaning your counters simply keeps you healthy. 


Food Allergy Prevention 

On top of cultivating a strong microbiome, early introduction can help reduce your child’s risk of developing allergies. Lil Mixins’ Infant Powders allow parents to safely introduce common allergenic foods to babies as early as 4 months. But totally ending the food allergy epidemic will require early introduction AND steps to fix the microbiome and maintain the skin barrier.