Could live cultures help with allergies?
Hay fever season is officially here. With the spring sunshine, comes a certain amount of misery to sufferers across the Western Hemisphere every year. However with mounting evidence linking gut health with allergies, we might have the answer to all of your allergy woes!
Despite the increasing numbers of people affected each year, the public are largely ignorant of the negative and life-altering effects that allergies can have on the lives of sufferers, so there is an urgent need to address this often dangerous health issue. Some allergies, such as hay fever, are obvious to all as the misery of sneezing, runny noses and itchy eyes are very apparent. But for other sufferers, allergies are an invisible and sometimes life-threatening consideration which can dominate their daily lives.
So could taking live cultures help with allergies?
It isn’t immediately obvious to most people how supplementing with live cultures or friendly bacteria could help allergy sufferers. But the question is an interesting one, given that 70% of our immune cells are located in our intestinal tract, and that our resident gut microbiome not only interacts with the immune system but can help to modulate its responses- incredible!1
In theory, most beneficial bacteria could have some positive effect on immune function merely by helping to improve gut health, but the research is a fast-growing, and new information is being discovered all the time about the different bacterial strains and their individual potential.
Which strains have been researched in those with allergies?
There are too many allergens to mention as it seems as though the individual can react to almost any type of food or substance; some allergens though – pollen, tree spores, and foods such as peanuts, gluten/wheat, soya and dairy – appear to be high on the list of potential triggers.
Histamine – a double-edged sword
We all know histamine as the inflammatory substance produced by the body in a typical hay fever reaction, for which anti-histamine drugs are the most popular conventional treatment. But not so many people are aware that histamine is also present in many foods and can create a wide range of allergenic symptoms if the individual lacks the specific enzyme in the body, Diamine Oxidase (DAO), to effectively break this substance down. Low levels of DAO leave high serum levels circulating in the blood causing a variety of inflammatory symptoms.
Causes of histamine intolerance are thought to be intestinal permeability ('leaky gut') and SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth). So in theory a high quality probiotic could be helpful in supporting gut health in those with histamine intolerance. The little research we have seen suggests that some strains may help to alleviate histamine intolerance by down regulating IgE and histamine receptors, and up-regulating anti-inflammatory agents in the intestinal wall, helping to repair damage and reduce permeability5. For more information, healthcare practitioners can see our information page ‘Which live cultures for histamine intolerance?’
Can live cultures help with food allergies and intolerances?
Why do allergies develop?
The reason why we develop allergies is still poorly understood, but it is a subject of great concern to the medical profession as these inappropriate physical responses are a growing concern worldwide6.
The World Allergy Organization (WAO) warns that "the prevalence of allergic diseases worldwide is rising dramatically in both developed and developing countries."
Allergies can take many different forms, encompassing reactions ranging from mild food intolerances to dangerous anaphylactic reactions.There is an important distinction to be made between allergies and food intolerances; however, food intolerances are generally the result of poor digestion or ‘leaky gut,’ where incompletely digested molecules of food pass through into the bloodstream triggering an immune response from an antibody, or immunoglobulin. A true allergy involves a specific immunoglobulin, IgE, which is implicated in anaphylaxis.
Allergies can also present without warning at any time, often affecting sufferers late in life and causing reactions to foods or environmental stimuli that have previously been well-tolerated.In particular, more and more children are presenting with allergenic symptoms, with the latest statistics indicating that more than 50% of children in the United Kingdom now suffer from some form of allergy. Evidence7 suggests that that babies born via Caesarean section have an increased risk of developing allergies in later life. A natural vaginal birth exposes babies to bacteria from their mother as they pass down the birth canal, plays an important role in the development of the immune system and gut microbiota.
Certain individuals seem to be more pre-disposed towards allergy development: the medical profession terms these people ‘atopic.’ Atopic is derived from the Greek and means something ‘out of place’ or ‘unusual’ – this predisposition to be ‘different’ appears to be genetic and can run in families.
Atopic family history – can anything be done?
There are conventional medications that act to reduce allergenic symptoms, such as anti-histamines and steroids, but avoidance of the known allergen is still one of the most effective methods of controlling reactions, whether these are foods or environmental allergens. This can be difficult when the allergen is widespread, as with pollens or tree spores that are spread throughout the environment in certain seasons and countries.
Considering that most of our beneficial gut flora is initially passed on to us from our mothers via the birth canal during natural childbirth, this predisposition could be traced back to a family history of unbalanced gut flora. Research is beginning to suggest that supporting gut health via the use of live cultures may help to prevent so-called atopic symptoms such as eczema. A Dutch study8 from 2013 suggested that in atopic dermatitis running in families could be alleviated by improving the populations of beneficial microbiota:
“The results of this study are supportive for a role of the microbiota in the development of AD (Atopic dermatitis). Moreover, the beneficial influence of older siblings on the microbiota composition suggests that this microbiota may be one of the biological mechanisms underlying the sibling effect.”
For more reading on this fascinating subject, healthcare practitioners might be interested in these other related articles:
N.B: This blog post was reviewed and updated in April 2019.