That is what a recent study has concluded. I know this may seem shocking but it is not as shocking as the news headlines are making it. This is a typical type of study where they take two groups, in this case comparing breast-fed children with formula-fed children and the incidence of allergy in both groups. I am not a fan of these studies because they make these simplistic correlations without looking at confounding factors.
In this case, researchers from the University of Chicago Medicine looked at over 200 children and documented whether they had eczema, asthma, hay fever or food allergies and noted if they were breast-fed or formula-fed. No differences were noted between the two groups.
Breast-feeding advocates, including the World Health Organization, jumped all over this, siting all kinds of other breastfeeding benefits that have been demonstrated in previous research such as reduced obesity risked in children and faster recovery for mothers. Like the researchers, they are missing the point.
The question is not whether breastfeeding is good for babies. The question is why is there no difference? And this is where some gut health knowledge would be helpful to those who speak about health.
I know researchers must do this type of study to establish the relationship and that is the first step but we can live without the headlines that the media create. It is like the correlation that the murder rates go up as ice cream sales go up. We know they are not really correlated – that there is a third factor such as warm weather that accounts for this observation.
So what is happening with breast feeding?
Well, what we do know is that lack of good bacteria and gut health are key factors in developing allergies. We also know that mothers deliver good bacteria to the baby through the breast milk, if they have sufficient themselves.
It is not as black and white as this but there is a lot of research that suggests beneficial bacteria delivers immune tolerance to foods and other substances that can become allergens. We also now have research that good bacteria can help mitigate symptoms. In another study at the University of Chicago Medicine, the use of specific strains increased immune tolerance for infants with cow’s milk allergies.
Researchers also found that the gut bacteria of the infants with the cow’s milk allergy was not as diverse as the healthy control group. They also found that after supplementing one group of infants (with the cow’s milk allergy) with Lactobacillus Rhamnosus GG in their formula, that along with the increased tolerance, they had higher levels of butyrate in their stool. Butyrate is a short chain fatty acid (SCFA) produced in the colon by the good bacteria fermenting carbohydrate – based fibre.
Butyrate is essential for maintaining gut health, protecting the gut lining and a lot of other beneficial activities in the gut and in the body. It is also found in butter – yum.
So if children are still developing allergies in a similar manner as those who are bottle-fed, then we need to look at the gut health of all children and what could be affecting that. If bottle-fed infants can improve a response to their allergens then imagine what could be accomplished it we improved the overall gut health of the baby to prevent allergies.
There are two key factors that will help with this:
The condition of the mother’s gut health while she is pregnant and after, when she is breastfeeding. Mothers deliver their gut microbes to the baby through breast milk and the babies receive some when they are delivered vaginally. There is also now some research that that babies can receive microbes from the mother in the womb and that they travel from the mothers gut through nerve cells to the baby. This means the mothers gut health is important while she is pregnant and during breast-feeding. If she does not have a healthy level of good bacteria or she does not have enough diversity of strains, then how can she delver this to the baby.
The second factor to consider: Does the mother receive antibiotics while pregnant or during the time she is breast feeding or does the baby? There is a lot of research pointing at antibiotics as a major issue for lowering the amount and diversity of good bacteria. Women are routinely given antibiotics if they deliver by Cesarean section and often both mother and baby are given antibiotics to prevent possible respiratory infections for the baby, even if they are delivered vaginnally. This will have a major effect for the baby’s gut health
Adding gut health strategies to a pregnancy regimen such as as consuming prebiotic and probiotic foods and supplements would help women have better gut health before the baby is born and after. It will help mothers provide the best start for their babies, which can have positive long term results. It may also help ensure that the breast milk has all the nutrients that the baby needs and be what nature intended it to be.
It is important that we spread the word so that women can have the best pregnancies possible and start the baby’s life in the best circumstances. There needs to be strategies for women who breast feed and for babies who cannot be breastfed. While we do not have all the answers, we have enough that we can start improving gut health for both mother and baby.
Uncovering effects of antibiotics on the host and microbiota using transkingdom gene networks, Andrey Morgun et al, Gut doi:10.1136/gutjnl-2014
A Case for Antibiotic Perturbation of the Microbiota Leading to Allergy Development, Lisa A Reynolds; B Brett Finlay, Expert Rev Clin Immunol. 2013;9(11):1019-1030, http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/814322
The Potential Link between Gut Microbiota and IgE-Mediated Food Allergy in Early Life, John Molloy et al, Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2013 Dec; 10(12): 7235–7256. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3881164/
Gut microbiota metabolism of dietary fiber influences allergic airway disease and hematopoiesis, Aurélien Trompette et al, Nature Medicine 20, 159–166 (2014) http://www.nature.com/nm/journal/v20/n2/full/nm.3444.html