Often you hear the old adage, "food before one is just for fun." But this may not be true. Exposing younger children to potential allergens earlier in life may prime their immune system to deal with these foods more effectively throughout their life, a recent study has found.
It wasn’t by an insignificant margin either. The New England Journal of Medicine has published research from a 2015 study at King’s College London which found that long-term allergy risk could be cup by up to 80% by exposing infants under 11 months of age to peanut products. Peanut allergies have jumped from affecting 1.4% of the population to 3% in the past ten years, and it can be one of the most deadly. Many doctors recommend that known allergens of parents and family members be avoided for infants, citing concerns for possible reactions. However, this study found that eliminating sources of exposure did not prevent the IgE-mediated allergic response.
The lead author of this research, Prof. Gideon Lack, noted that the protection of this early exposure was long-lasting. This study, which looked at 640 infants with either severe eczema, egg allergies, or both, were randomly grouped to either be sheltered from peanut products, or be exposed to them, between 4 and 11 months old. They were then separated based on the results of an allergy skin prick test. Testing was again done at 60 months of age, to determine which group had gained resistance to reactions. At the 60 month conclusion, researchers found in the negative skin prick cohort 13.7% of the avoidance group had an allergic reaction, where the exposure group had only 1.9%. In the positive skin prick cohort, 35.3% showed allergy in the avoidance group at 60 months, while the exposure group had only 10.6% who were allergic.
While introducing new foods and potential allergens between 4 and 11 months shows benefits, clients should be aware that their newborns are not yet prepared to consume and digest complimentary foods before 17 weeks of age. A 2013 study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that solid foods before this age tend to promote food allergies and negative reactions throughout life, instead of preventing them.
It also appears that solid foods along with continued breastfeeding after this 17th week has additional benefits to preventing allergies in infants. It’s suggested by this 2013 study from the University of Southampton that the infant immune system is made stronger and more robust by the regular consumption of breastmilk, helping to modulate the allergic reactions.
Looking at allergies to foods and other substances from the perspective of how we prime the immune system for the rest of life may change how we advise our clients on what we should protect infants from. It’s terrifying for parents to think of their children having life-threatening allergic reactions, so their logical conclusion is to avoid them to eliminate the risk. It may be worth it to them to begin experimenting with these foods in a safe, controlled atmosphere, or to have early allergy testing to determine an appropriate course of action.
Since this type of early exposure appears to convey lifelong resistance to allergic reactions for many people, we can consider a similar approach for other potential allergens, such as eggs and seafood. These findings can also be a point of discussion with clients to dissuade food fears and help them avoid overly-insular eating plans for themselves and their families.
More research is needed in the area of immune system modulation in the early years of life as well as in adulthood, as well as how allergies are triggered later in life as opposed to childhood. Modern methods of detecting sensitivities is are improving, such as the skin prick tests mentioned above, though blood tests are less reliable.