What is the atopic march? No, it's not the latest dance craze... The atopic march refers to the progression of allergic conditions that often begins in early infancy. People who are genetically prone to atopy (allergic disease) often begin to experience food allergy and/or atopic eczema in infancy, followed by allergic rhinitis and/or asthma later in life.
The good news is that some researchers believe that it's possible to stop the atopic march before it begins - with bacteria!
Probiotics as Immunomodulators
Several studies suggest that probiotics may have an immunomodulatory effect; that is, they may affect how the immune system works. Probiotics are live microorganisms that offer health benefits when consumed by humans. You've probably heard about the benefits of probiotics like L. acidophilus from yogurt advertisements. We actually have ten times the number of bacteria in our body than our own cells, and it looks like the bacteria in our gastrointestinal tract help to regulate the immune system.
We have all sorts of microorganisms living in our gut; some are good, and some are bad. Probiotics help to restore a healthy balance, and this is important because the intestinal tract acts as a barrier to allergens. The allergens in your gut may come from food that you eat or air that you breathe. For instance, when you inhale pollen during the spring, a large number of pollen grains get stuck in your nose and make their way down your throat and into your stomach! That's why the neti pot is so helpful to seasonal allergy sufferers - because it washes all those pollen grains out of your nose before you have a chance to swallow them.
Probiotics not only help keep the intestinal tract healthy; it appears that some strains of gut bacteria actually regulate the secretion of inflammatory chemicals and direct the development of the immune system during infancy, when the risk of allergic disease is highest. These organisms have been living inside of humans for thousands of years; they are part of us, and it seems that our body takes developmental cues from them.
A study presented at the 2005 annual meeting of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (ACAAI) showed that perinatal administration of probiotics cut the risk of eczema in half! Furthermore, the protective benefits continued beyond infancy.
Food can be a great source of protection against allergy, but some foods can make allergies worse. See Foods that Aggravate Allergies & Foods That Fight Allergies to learn more.
Healthy Mothers Make Healthy Babies
A mother's diet and habits also affect the development of allergies in her children. Maternal exposure to pollutants, antibiotics, cigarette smoke, and acetaminophen have been linked to increase risk of allergy in the child. It's important for expectant mothers to keep their environments free of pollutants with control measures like air purifiers and HEPA vacuum cleaners. A mother may also reduce the risk of allergy in her child by supplementing fish oil and selenium. Low levels of maternal selenium are associated with wheezing in the child, and fish oil supplementation during pregnancy alters allergen-induced cytokine production to reduce the severity of any subsequent eczema in the child.
But good nutrition is not just for expectant mothers and newborns! Probiotics and healthy foods can improve your health and your allergy symptoms regardless of your age. You can get probiotics from yogurt, kefir, natto (a fermented soy product popular in Japan), or supplements in the form of a pill. Besides reducing inflammation, probiotics may also lower blood pressure and cholesterol, prevent colon cancer, help with lactose intolerance, and improve mineral absorption.
Eat Prebiotics for Your Probiotics
Prebiotic foods also help by stimulating the growth of bacteria in the gut. Some prebiotics include raw oats, unrefined wheat, and inulin from sweet fruits and vegetables. For more tips on improving your allergy symptoms with healthy foods, see Nutrition for Allergy Sufferers.