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I've Seen Probiotics Advertised to Prevent Food Allergies. Do These Work?

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Updated August 20, 2008

Question: I've Seen Probiotics Advertised to Prevent Food Allergies. Do These Work?
Answer:

First of all, it's useful to explain what probiotics are before delving into the research on this question. Probiotics are a type of bacteria that are normally found in the intestines of healthy people. We often use them to culture milk to make yogurt, kefir, and other fermented dairy products. When you see yogurt advertised with "live, active cultures," that's referring to live bacteria of the same sort that people talk about when they talk about probiotics. The types of bacteria that are especially well-studied for their benefits as probiotics include Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacterium bifidum.

The hygiene hypothesis -- the idea that the clean environments Westerners live in have prevented our bodies from being colonized with the healthy bacteria we need to develop a healthy immune system -- is one reason researchers have begun to conduct research with probiotics. Thus far, however, supplements of probiotics have shown little effect on preventing most allergies. Randomized, controlled trials (studies in which large groups of roughly equal sizes were divided at random) have shown only mixed or unclear effects on preventing food allergies, asthma, and environmental allergies, and at least one has shown that probiotics may actually make infants more sensitive to allergens.

However, several studies have shown that infants in groups supplemented with probiotics were significantly less likely to develop eczema (an allergic condition associated with other types of allergies) later in life. Further studies are currently running to try to determine whether this encouraging effect will continue to hold true. One other area of current study is prebiotics: nondigestible sugars that encourage the growth of favorable bacteria within the body. To date, though, there have not been conclusive results on whether prebiotics can prevent food allergies.

Probiotics are not considered especially risky for most people. However, because probiotics may be cultured from dairy products, some probiotic preparations may be risky for people with dairy allergies. Your allergist or pediatrician can advise you about the risks and benefits of probiotics for your child.

Sources:

Abrahamsson, Thomas R., et al. "Probiotics in Prevention of IgE-Associated Eczema: A Double-Blind, Randomized, Placebo-Controlled Trial." Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. May 2007 119(5): 1174-80. 18 Aug. 2008.

Kukkonen, Kaarina, et al. "Probiotics and Prebiotic Galacto-Oligosaccharides in the Prevention of Allergic Diseases: A Randomized, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Trial." Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. Jan. 2007 119(1): 192-98. 18 Aug. 2008.

Lee, Joohee, et al. "Meta-Analysis of Clinical Trials of Probiotics for Prevention and Treatment of Pediatric Atopic Dermatitis." Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. Jan. 2008 121(1): 116-21.e11. 18 Aug. 2008.

Lee, Tzu-Tai Tiger, et al. "Contamination of Probiotic Preparations with Milk Allergens Can Cause Anaphylaxis in Children with Cow's Milk Allergy." Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. Mar. 2007 119(3): 746-47. 18 Aug. 2008.

Prescott, Susan L. and Bengt Björkstén. "Probiotics for the Prevention or Treatment of Allergic Diseases." Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. Aug. 2007 120(2): 255-62. 18 Aug. 2008.

Taylor, Angie L., et al. "Probiotic Supplementation for the First 6 Months of Life Fails to Reduce the Risk of Atopic Dermatitis and Increases the Risk of Allergen Sensitization in High-Risk Children: A Randomized Controlled Trial." Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. Jan. 2007 119(1): 184-91. 18 Aug. 2008.

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