The incidence of allergic diseases in children has been steadily increasing the last 30 years.
As the rate of infectious diseases made a sharp decline over the decades, incidence of immune disorders has dramatically increased. In the last 10 years alone, the number of Filipino children who develop allergies has increased by 30 percent.
Recent studies at the Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich, Germany, revealed that the decade-long practice of avoiding foods such as milk, eggs and fish, in the first year of the infant may, in fact, increase the risk of developing an allergic disease later on.
“We know now it is better to give these to increase the child’s tolerance, to slowly introduce them so that the baby’s system will learn how to handle them,” said Prof. Sibylle Kaletzko, division head, Pediatric Gastroenterology and Hepatology, of the Dr. V. Haunersches Kinderspital, Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich, Germany.
She advised against the introduction of solid food in the first three to four months of infancy. Feeding solid food at this age might even increase the risk for allergic disease such as eczema.
But contrary to popular belief, delaying solid food introduction to when the baby is a year old doesn’t protect the child and may actually increase allergy risk, she said.
“Food introduction early in life is not good, but introducing them beyond six months is just as bad. So after the fourth or fifth month you might want to slowly introduce solid food, even bits of eggs, fish, wheat, for the baby to develop and increase tolerance. This is the best option today,” Kaletzko said.
Kaletzko added that there is no evidence that any dietary restriction while the mother is pregnant or breastfeeding helps prevent allergies in the baby. Have a normal diet, she said. Eating fish may even be beneficial to help decrease allergy risks.
Studies have also revealed that the moment of birth is crucial to the infant’s gut flora, she said. The gut flora, acquired in this instant, will determine the baby’s development of his/her immune system. There is a big difference in the gut flora between a baby delivered through C-section and that through vaginal birth.
C-section or normal
Babies acquire their gut flora with the first swallow. During normal delivery, a baby’s first swallow is the flora of its mother.
“This is a dirty environment, a ‘bad’ flora influenced by many conditions including the mother’s environment. But this is crucial to the infant’s development of his/her immune system in the next few months,” Kaletzo said.
Compare that to a baby delivered through C-section, she continued. That baby’s first swallow will be the sterile environment of the operating room. Everything is so clean.
“This is not normal. The baby will take a much longer time to acquire normal flora. There will be a delayed development of the optimal balance in the developing body’s immune response. Allergy is triggered when the immune system overreacts to certain allergen,” she said.
Kaletzo said our exposure to certain bacteria or microbes before and after birth has an effect on our immune system and its reaction. There are 10 times more bacteria in our body, she said, than we have old cells. But how the bacteria reacts to our new cells will influence how we will react to diseases.
“You colonize what you swallow—what you eat, what you lick. How you grew up is also important. Disinfecting your hands all the time is not good, but living in a dirty environment is not good too. For example, it’s advisable to wash your hands with soap after using the toilet, but disinfecting them is a little too much,” she said.
To this day, however, Kaletzo said they do not know why some children’s allergies simply go away and others stay. Some food allergies such as milk or egg tend to disappear over time, while allergies to peanuts or soy tend to remain for a lifetime.
It is helpful to introduce certain food to build endurance and lower allergy risks, but when an allergy has already been established, it is best to always avoid that food, she said. If you can eat certain food, like peanut, without symptoms, you are not allergic to it.
Most people do not suffer from allergy, some people develop tolerance, and still some develop allergies much later in life.
Pollution, for instance, is identified as a risk factor for people with asthma and allergic rhinitis. Kaletzo said when pollens, for example, connect with other particles they change their allergenic sensitization. This is why children who normally do not have abnormal reactions to pollens suddenly react to it.
“This is how our environment changes. It changes the pollen that we are not tolerant to it anymore. We are still trying to identify what causes this change in our environment,” she said.
There are several factors influencing the gut flora—genes, maternal gut flora, mode of delivery, age, bacteria and probiotics, antibiotics and drugs, food. A balanced and nutritional diet during pregnancy and while the mother is breastfeeding is still recommended, she said.