Breastfeeding mothers produce signals that affect their babies’ immune system development and help prevent future food allergies, according to new global research.
Image credit: University of Western Australia
World-leading breastfeeding experts from the University of Western Australia, the Telethon Kids Institute and a German research institute published new evidence highlighting that the allergens in breast milk may be the key to training a baby’s immune response.
Ten percent of children in Western countries already have food allergies by the age of one, and this evidence can help guide maternal health counseling and alleviate the worldwide burden of allergic disease.
The results, published in Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, supported the concept that exposure to allergens in breast milk was unique and very different from allergen exposure in non-breastfed infants.
Infants who are breastfed are exposed to several allergens that originate from the mother’s diet and the environment and that are likely to be found in their diet and environment after weaning.
If they were not breastfed, infants would not be exposed to most of these allergens before weaning and therefore would not receive this preparation to the outside world.
In addition to the many allergens found in breast milk compared to formula, Professor Valérie Verhasselt, Larssen-Rosenquist director of the Center for Immunology and Breastfeeding Research at UWA and the Telethon Kids Institute, said that exposing infants to allergens through breast milk rather than food was very different.
“In breast milk, only one minute dose would reach the baby compared to when it was given through food to the baby,” said Professor Verhasselt.
The allergen is also found digested, bound to antibodies and surrounded by a ‘soup’ of molecules that can modulate the immune system. This can be specifically designed for early immune system training and injury prevention. ”
Professor Valérie Verhasselt, Larssen-Rosenquist Director of the Center for Research in Immunology and Breastfeeding, UWA
Professor Verhasselt said a better understanding of the specifics of allergen exposure through breast milk should lead to more evidence-based health interventions to prevent early-life allergies, including the mother and baby diet.
“We know that breast milk has an incredible ability to protect offspring from infectious diseases, and many of the compounds found in breast milk have the necessary properties to instruct immune development and prevent allergies,” she said.
“Understanding how to manage this will require many more years of research.”
University of Western Australia
Macchiaverni, P., et al. (2021) Allergy release in breast milk: Could it be the key to immune system education and allergy prevention ?. Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. doi.org/10.1016/j.jaci.2021.07.012.