Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Tip Sheet: Three Ways to Combat Childhood Allergies

Another web-based hoax?  Apparently not.  New scientific evidence on how to ward off many common childhood allergies may sound a little “out there,” but if you'd like to decrease the likelihood that your child will develop an allergy, read on.

The short story:
  • When you’ve got a choice, choose a normal birth.
  • Don’t strive to maintain a spotlessly clean home.
  • Suck your baby’s pacifier.
Especially in the case of the latter two recommendations, you may think this sounds more like an urban legend, but many scientists are on board with these recommendations due to recent studies.
    Baby outside

    1.  Avoid C-Section when you have the option

    If you want your baby to grow up with the healthiest of immune systems and resistance to antigens (those things that cause allergic reactions – things that cause your immune system to react), recent studies indicate that your child will have the best chance if the child is born normally, i.e. not by cesarean section (C-section).

    Of course, you may not have a choice of C-section versus normal birth, so follow your doctor's advice.  It's possible your health or your baby's condition is such that a C-section surgery is the safest option. However, there are many times when a pregnant woman has an option – where getting a C-section surgery, or not, is up to her.  In these cases, where the mom is weighing the advantages and disadvantages, these recent studies point out another disadvantage: that C-section babies appear to be missing out on some important and healthful bacteria exposure that happens when a baby passes through the birth canal.

    You can get the full depth and breadth of the study here, but to summarize what they learned, and how they learned it:
    • The study involved nearly 1300 newborns over a four-year period.
    • One of the key goals of the study was to understand what they describe as the microbiome or “microbial ecosystem” within each baby.  (See the Human Microbiome Project for more info.)  The microbiome is the whole microscopic world inside your gut – a highly populated community with more than 100 trillion microorganisms. 
    • One of the more significant discoveries the scientists made is that the microbiome of babies born through normal birth was markedly different than that of babies born through C-section – what they call a different pattern of gut bacteria.
    • The scientists found that babies born via C-section had greater sensitivity to many common allergens than those babies born by natural birth, such as allergens often associated with dust mites, cats, dogs, and cockroaches.  Specifically, C-section babies had five times the likelihood of developing allergies by age two!
    One of the scientists' key conclusions from this study is that it appears that normal-birth babies are exposed to bacteria in the birth canal – an exposure that helps the body to prepare for its all-important life battle against antigens.  During vaginal delivery, the contact with the mother's vaginal and intestinal flora is apparently an important starting point for an infant's own gut colonization. Without the direct contact with the mom's birth canal and its bacterial environment, the cesarean section baby's growing-up response to antigens is weakened.  In fact, as this chart shows, the absence of the birth canal experience can affect the health of a baby in many ways.

    Scientists are still trying to determine all the factors that may cause this – for instance, delayed lactation, which is common in women with C-sections, means that the baby isn't getting good bacterial exposure from the mother’s milk, which can also populate the bacterial flora of the infant’s gut.

    2. Expose your child to normal life "stuff"

    With the best of intentions, many mothers strive to protect the health of their children by maintaining a spotlessly clean home – one that will be free of the "three D’s” –  dust, dander, and dirt.  But another outcome of studies such as the one referenced above is that scientists are starting to question the value of perfect environmental hygiene.  As this and other studies reveal, a lack of exposure to microorganisms, infectious agents, and parasites in early childhood can suppress the development of the immune system.

    This doesn't necessarily mean you should dump your baby in dirt. The scientists refer to "incidental environmental exposure”– just the ordinary microbial environment of the real world around the house and yard – and how it seems to play a major role in determining the distinctive characteristics of the microbial community within each baby. “By the end of the first year of life, microbial ecosystems in each baby, although still distinct, had converged toward a profile characteristic of the adult gastrointestinal tract.”

    Thus, based on the current weight of evidence, some scientists now recommend that moms avoid the approach of trying to keep an “antiseptic house."  Scientists believe that this could explain why there is a higher occurrence of diseases such as asthma, allergic rhinitis, and atopic dermatitis in more affluent, Western, industrialized countries. Their “hygiene hypothesis” is that an overly clean environment, especially in early childhood, may contribute to the development of several childhood diseases.

    Baby sucking on pacifier

    3. Suck on pacifiers

    This may sound strangely old world, but a recent Swedish study, published in Pediatrics journal, shows that, when a parent sucks on his or her child's pacifier – yes, using their own mouth's saliva to "clean" their babies pacifiers – those babies were up to 37 percent less likely to get eczema or asthma by the time they had reached 18 months.   And that positive effect continues; when the study looked at three-year-olds,  if their parents had cleaned their pacifiers by their own mouths, the three-year-olds were still roughly half as likely to develop eczema as children whose parents were less free with their spit.

    CONCLUSION:  As surprising as much of this sounds, you can give your child the best defense against allergies by sucking your infant’s pacifier, by striving for a normal birth, and avoiding a sterile home environment.

    Ric Moxley
    Contributing Writer

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