Food Allergies May Have Everything To Do With Gut Bacteria, Study Finds
According to the Food Allergy Research & Education organization, 32 million Americans now suffer from some kind of food allergy. That includes one in 13 children under the age of 18, and the prevalence of kids diagnosed has increased by over 50% in the last two decades alone. There are a handful of theories on what's to blame for this steady rise: Overly sterilized home environments, antibiotics, and pollution being some of the most widely accepted.
A noteworthy new study, released this week by scientists at Boston Children's Hospital and Brigham and Women's Hospital, says that a lack of certain gut bacteria is actually what's driving many food allergies. It's still too early to say for sure, but these findings could go on to shape the future of food allergy prevention and treatment in kids and adults worldwide.
How did they figure out that gut bacteria is to blame?
First, the team at Boston Children's Hospital collected stool samples from 56 young patients who suffered from food allergies and 98 who didn't. They found that the stool from the food allergy sufferers did indeed have some different bacteria than the control stool.
From there, they extracted fecal bacteria from both groups and transplanted it to mice who suffered from egg allergies. That's where things got interesting: The team found that the mice who were given the bacteria from the control stool didn't have an allergic reaction when subsequently fed small doses of chicken egg protein.
"If you give them the right bacteria, they're completely resistant to food allergy," Talal Chatila, M.D., director of the Food Allergy Program at Boston Children's and a senior author on the paper, wrote.
Chatila and the other researchers then worked with Brigham and Women's Hospital to isolate the specific bacteria that was protecting the mice, and they identified Clostridiales and Bacteroidales as two particularly beneficial types. It seems that these "good" bacteria prepare a child's immune system to accept certain foods by triggering a train reaction in regulatory T-cells in the gut.
Though this initial study used stool from children, its authors are hopeful that its findings will be applicable to adults who suffer from allergies too. "Remember, in adult mice that had become food-allergic, we could suppress their disease by introducing the good bacteria, which means to us there is the potential to treat somebody with established food allergy and reset their immune system in favor of tolerance," Chatila says.
Before you get too excited, these are preliminary findings that need to be supported by other research. But, if their hypothesis holds true, Chatila and his team could have just made a huge breakthrough: We can treat and prevent food allergies by giving people a specialized blend of bacteria. Which leaves us asking yet again: Is there anything probiotics can't do?
Emma Loewe is the Senior Sustainability Editor at mindbodygreen and the author of Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us. She is also the co-author of The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care, which she wrote alongside Lindsay Kellner.
Emma received her B.A. in Environmental Science & Policy with a specialty in environmental communications from Duke University. In addition to penning over 1,000 articles on mbg, her work has appeared on Bloomberg News, Marie Claire, Bustle, and Forbes. She has covered everything from the water crisis in California to the rise of urban beekeeping to a group of doctors prescribing binaural beats for anxiety. She's spoken about the intersection of self-care and sustainability on podcasts and live events alongside environmental thought leaders like Marci Zaroff, Gay Browne, and Summer Rayne Oakes.