Over the past few decades, the number of people with food allergies has been on the rise. Current estimates suggest that at least 11% of people in the United States have some form of food allergy, increasing with each generation.
Until recently, the only management strategies available were strict avoidance and quick intervention in the case of accidental exposure. But new insights into how food allergies develop and what drives their severity are opening up new avenues for treatment—potentially even a cure.
Microorganisms in Your Gut Affect Your Immune System
Allergies are an immune system overreaction to an antigen protein that wouldn’t normally be considered harmful. The immune system views the allergen as a threat in people with allergies and produces antibodies to fight it off. This immune response can range from mild to severe and potentially life-threatening.
A growing body of evidence demonstrates that the gut microbiome (the ecosystem of microorganisms that live in your digestive tract) plays a significant role in immune system development and function. When the gut microbiome is out of balance, it can lead to immune system dysregulation and an increased risk of allergies.
Antibiotics, caesarian delivery, antiseptic cleaners, infant formula feeding, and other dietary factors have all been linked to gut microbiome dysbiosis and an increased incidence of allergies.
Identifying Key Bacteria That Protect Against Allergies
In 2014, a team of researchers at the University of Chicago set out to identify which specific gut bacteria may be responsible for protecting against the development of allergies.
First, they observed that mice born and raised in sterile conditions with minimal exposure to microorganisms were more likely to have an immunological response to peanut allergens than mice raised in standard lab conditions. Similarly, newborn mice who were given antibiotics were also more likely to have an allergic reaction to peanuts.
This suggested that early life exposure to certain types of bacteria may be necessary for developing a healthy immune system that can properly respond to allergens.
When the researchers introduced Clostridia bacteria (a common gut microbe) into the mice, they found that the allergic sensitivity was reversed. They no longer had an allergic reaction to peanuts.
They also tried introducing another common type of intestinal bacteria, Bacteroides, but this did not have the same effect. This indicates that Clostridia bacteria have a uniquely protective role against food allergens.
Another study that looked at the microbiome of identical twins (one with allergies and one without) found that the gut bacteria of the twins without allergies was enriched in Clostridia species. In contrast, the twins with allergies had lower levels of these bacteria.
How Clostridia Bacteria Help
Clostridia bacteria ferment dietary fiber into butyrate, a short-chain fatty acid that plays a critical role in the maintenance and function of your intestinal barrier. Your intestines are where you absorb the majority of nutrients from the food you eat into your bloodstream. If the integrity of your intestinal barrier is compromised, it may allow food allergens and other harmful substances to enter your bloodstream, triggering an immune response.
When Clostridia bacteria are present in the gut, they help to maintain a healthy intestinal barrier and prevent food allergens from entering the bloodstream. This, in turn, helps to prevent an allergic reaction from occurring.
Can My Food Allergy Be Cured?
This research is still in its early stages, and human clinical trials are currently ongoing to test the efficacy of Clostridia bacteria probiotics in the treatment of food allergies.
While this treatment is not currently available, it is a promising area of research that may soon offer a cure for food allergies. Other potential treatments for food allergies are being investigated, including oral immunotherapy and monoclonal antibody therapy.
Talk to your doctor if you think you or your child may have a food allergy or if you are seeking treatment options. New advancements in this field are emerging all the time, and a treatment option or clinical trial may be available that is right for you.