PREGNANCY & CHILDHOOD

The Surprising Link Between Gut Bacteria and Food Allergies in Children

Could the Right Gut Bacteria Help Prevent Food Allergies in Children?

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The latest science suggests the right gut bacteria may one day help prevent some common food allergies. But until then, here's what you need to know to keep your child safe from allergic reactions. 

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MAR. 03, 2020   4 MIN. READ
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Today, one in 13 children has a food allergy. According to the Food Allergy Research & Education organization that studies food allergies and their impact on Americans, that's roughly two children in every classroom. When your son or daughter has dietary limitations such as these, it's natural to worry about them coming in contact to foods at school and other places that could make them ill.

But what if food allergies could be prevented in the first place? According to preclinical research, this may be possible one day — perhaps even in our lifetime. The key lies in the makeup of a child's gut bacteria. 

How Gut Health and Food Allergies Intertwine

In one recent study, researchers transplanted gut bacteria from two different groups of babies — one with a cow's milk allergy, and one without any food allergies — into mice that lacked gut bacteria. Then, they fed the mice an infant formula that contained milk.

The mice that received microbes from the milk-allergic babies experienced a life-threatening allergic reaction known as anaphylaxis. Those given bacteria from healthy infants were able to drink the formula without any problem at all.

To find out why these reactions were so vastly different, the researchers examined the types of microbes in the guts of each group of mice. They found that the animals who received bacteria from the healthy infants harbored a special bacterium known to protect against food allergies: Anaerostipes caccae.

Related: Does My Baby Have a Cow's Milk Allergy?

What Causes a Food Allergy?

But there are many factors believed to cause allergic reactions to food. At its core, a food allergy occurs when the body misinterprets harmless proteins in food as foreign invaders. Children can be allergic to any food but are most likely to be allergic to cow's milk. In fact, cow's milk allergy affects 2.5% of children under the age of three.

But in light of this new research, a future where children can sip milk — and eat whatever they like — without fear of an allergic reaction seems within reach. By further exploring the link between gut bacteria and anaphylaxis, scientists are one giant step closer to discovering how to prevent food allergies from ever forming.

The hope, according to researchers at the University of Chicago, is to one day be able to help cultivate more protective gut bacteria in children with food allergies. But until that day comes, prevention is the best way to protect your child from a serious food reaction.

Creating a Food Allergy Plan to Keep Your Child Safe

When your kid has a food allergy, ensuring they stay well-nourished and safe is priority number one. With these tips, you can create a food allergy plan that'll inform your child and their caregivers on how to prevent a reaction and what to do in the instance of one.

Know the signs and symptoms of allergies. Very young children may not be able to explain that they're experiencing an allergic reaction. Anyone caring for your child should be on the lookout for nonverbal cues, such as: 

  • A hoarse or squeaky voice.
  • Pulling or scratching the tongue.
  • Slurred speech.
  • Putting hands inside the mouth.

Have an emergency action plan. Allergic reactions to foods can progress quickly. Having an emergency action plan in place allows swift action to be taken, as all the information on their healthcare provider and any medications they are taking will all be in one place.

Team up with your child's teachers and caregivers. More than 15% of children with food allergies will experience a reaction at school. Schedule an appointment with your child's teacher to review the food(s) your child is allergic to, as well as the details of their emergency action plan. Make sure anyone else who cares for your child — from aunts and uncles to friends and sports coaches — are also aware of their allergy and know what to do in an emergency.

How to Educate Your Child About Their Allergy

Even when their caretakers know what to do, your child should also be prepared for a reaction. Educating your child about their allergy is one of the best steps you can take to help prevent accidents.

For younger children, keep things simple by explaining that certain food(s) can make them sick. Introduce the concepts of safe foods and unsafe foods to make it easier for them to understand what they can and can't eat. Help your child recognize unsafe foods by pointing them out in pictures; or take a trip to the supermarket, showing them examples as you stroll down the aisles. Explain that they should only accept foods provided by people who know about their allergy, such as a grandparent, babysitter or teacher.

Related: Milk Allergies in Children: A Parent's Nutrition Plan

For school-aged children, review how to read food labels and give your child a copy of their emergency action plan to carry at all times. Make sure they are familiar with it, and that they know how to get help if they feel sick or think they may have accidentally eaten an unsafe food.

Show middle and high schoolers how to find information about the ingredients of the foods they're eating at cafeterias and restaurants, and encourage them to ask about ingredients before ordering. They may feel insecure about holding up the line, but assure them that making sure the foods they're eating are safe is more important than any slight inconvenience to others.

While an allergic reaction can be frightening, with a plan in place and a solid understanding of their allergies, your child will be well-equipped to keep themselves safe even when they're miles away from home.

One in 13 children has a food allergy, and about 40% are allergic to more than one food.

 

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