March 14, 2013

Melissa Arca: Research provides hope for preventing food allergies in babies

Food allergies among children have been rising in the past few years.

Food allergies among children have been rising in the past few years.

Approximately 5 percent of children under 5 years old have a documented food allergy. And ask any parent or individual who either has a food allergy or cares for a child with one – it often is a scary and challenging road when navigating mealtimes, the school cafeteria and birthday parties.

Food-allergy reactions can range from a mild rash to severe anaphylaxis putting a child at risk for death. Up to 39 percent of children with food allergies have a history of severe reactions.

We know that the development of food allergies is a complex mix of genetics and environment. But what if we could alter that environment, in the first year of life, when it seems to be the most critical?

If food allergies could be prevented, no doubt most parents would jump at the chance to do anything they could to protect their children from developing one.

Well, there is promising new research both recently released and under way that could make significant headway in what seems to be an explosion of food allergies.

The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology in January released nutritional guidelines for the prevention of allergic diseases. Among the recommendations is one saying there is no need to delay introduction of highly allergenic foods such as dairy, wheat, peanut butter, eggs and fish when starting your infant on solids (somewhere between 4 and 6 months of age).

In fact, the researchers postulate, based on years of observational studies, that the opposite may actually be better. Introduce these foods early, soon after your infant receives typical first foods (such as rice cereal, fruits, and vegetables) and you may actually protect him from the development of food allergies.

Now, these are just guidelines because more interventional studies are needed to give this association more of a robust cause and effect. But experts agree that the theory makes sense and parents should not intentionally delay these foods in their child's first year of life.

The theory is that if infants are not exposed to these types of foods early enough, when they finally are introduced their immune systems can potentially treat the foods as foreign substances, activating the cascade of allergic reactions.

For families with a strong history of food allergies, consultation with a specialist may be in order before embarking on the introduction of highly allergenic foods. But by the same token, it could be these very infants who would benefit the most from this type of nutritional plan.

More promising studies were recently released, giving parents hope that prevention may indeed be an attainable goal. One such study revealed the importance of sufficient vitamin D levels in the first year of life. It found that 1-year-olds deficient in vitamin D were three times more likely to have a food allergy than their counterparts with normal vitamin D levels.

This is why it's so important for exclusively breast-fed babies to get daily vitamin D drops, and why first foods need to be rich in it.

Another study revealed a greater risk of food allergies among infants who received early and numerous rounds of antibiotics (three or four courses or more) in their first year. That's another reason to be judicious with the use of antibiotics.

In addition, we know that exclusive breast-feeding for the first four to six months of life protects against certain allergic diseases and that there is no reason for pregnant and/or nursing mothers to restrict their diet in the hopes of avoiding food allergies in their babies. In fact, as long as mom has no known food allergies, and the nursing infant shows no sign of them, a varied diet that includes the typical allergenic foods is the best way to go.

This is promising research that I'm hopeful will continue to elucidate more clues about food allergies.

Most of our efforts have focused on diagnosing, treating and managing food allergies. Can you imagine if we could actually prevent them from developing in the first place?

Dr. Melissa Arca is a mother of two. Her blog,, is featured on The Bee's blog and community news network,

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