Digestive Health In Early Life Linked To Allergies

dandelionAs a naturopathic physician, I’m always paying close attention to the connection between intestinal health and systemic complaints.  Allergies in particular are something that our profession has recognized as having strong ties to the digestive tract.  When people present to my office complaining of allergies, one of the first things I ask about is whether or not they’re having any digestive symptoms.  I also want to know about their history of antibiotic use, their diet, if they were breastfed as an infant, and whether or not they were born via Caesarean section.  So, what do these birth-related issues have to do with someone’s current allergy symptoms?  Well, we know that allergies are symptoms that result from antibody responses to antigens (dust mites, pollens, mold, etc.) that our body recognizes as foreign. But what your doctors don’t often discuss is why this occurs in the first place.

A recent study done at Henry Ford Health Center suggests that babies born by C-section are five times more likely to develop environmental allergies by age two than children who are born vaginally.  This mainly has to do with the bacterial exposure that occurs when babies pass through the birth canal, vs. if they’re removed via C-section.  Starting in the womb, the intestinal tract of babies is essentially sterile.  As they pass through the birth canal, they are exposed to the entire population of bacteria that resides within their mother’s vaginal and gastrointestinal tract.  This allows their immune system to learn the difference between “good” and “bad” bacteria.  A C-section prevents this critical exposure to bacteria, allowing the body to develop a sensitivity to allergens before the intestinal microbes have a chance to fully develop.

Of course, by the time most of us manifest allergy symptoms, it’s too late to do anything about how we were born!  However, there are still a number of intestinal-related factors that play a role in immune function, and how the immune system may recognize everyday substances as foreign.  But for expecting mothers, if you know you’ll be having a C-section, one of the best measures you can take to protect your child is by breastfeeding.  This will also help to pass on important bacteria that they won’t otherwise be exposed to with formula alone.  You can also supplement with probiotics, which are often formulated as powders with strains that are specific for infants.

For the rest of us, it’s still important to take steps to normalize the microbial environment of the intestines as much as possible when trying to minimize the body’s allergy response.  Ways to do this include consuming more sources of fermented foods, such as yogurt and kefir, and supplementing with mixed strains of probiotics (bifidobacter, lactobacillus, etc.).  You can also look at stool tests to measure the amount of healthy bacteria within your intestinal tract, along with making sure that unwanted microorganisms aren’t present.  The bottom line is that there is much more we can do when it comes to allergies than just loading up with anti-histamines and allergy shots.  The immune system is extremely intelligent and sophisticated, so let’s start giving it a little more credit!