Why do some children develop food allergies? According to a new study, the answer may lie in the skin, not the gut.
Researchers from King’s College London and the University of Dundee found that infants with impaired skin barriers, especially those with eczema, are over six times more likely than healthy infants to suffer from food sensitivities, leading scientists to believe that food allergies may develop via immune cells in the skin.
The study, which was funded by the British Food Standards Agency, Medical Research Council, and the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), involved 600 three-month-old babies. The babies were examined for eczema, screened for gene mutations associated with eczema, tested to see how much water their skin was able to retain, and then tested for food allergies. Researchers noted a correlation between severity of eczema and food sensitivity, independent of genetic factors. It has been surmised that the breakdown of the skin barrier in eczema exposes immune cells in skin to environmental allergens, which then triggers an allergic immune response.
This isn’t the first time scientists have found a link between eczema and food allergies, but these findings could be a game changer. “This work takes what we thought we knew about eczema and food allergy and flips it on its head,” said Dr. Carsten Flohr, NIHR Clinician Scientist and Senior Lecturer at King’s College London and Consultant at St John’s Institute of Dermatology at St Thomas’ Hospital, “We thought that food allergies are triggered from the inside out, but our work shows that in some children it could be from the outside in, via the skin. The skin barrier plays a crucial role in protecting us from allergens in our environment, and we can see here that when that barrier is compromised, especially in eczema, it seems to leave the skin’s immune cells exposed to these allergens.”
Another new study, this one by researchers from University of Miami, may provide insight into how parents can try to protect their children. The study revealed that children who consume probiotics early in life may reduce their risk of developing eczema. Probiotics, small organisms that help maintain the natural balance of organisms in the intestines, can be found in nutritional supplements. The exact link between eczema and bacteria in the gut is still unknown, but if you’re a parent with a young child, consider adding to your child’s diet a probiotic supplement or yogurt, which is another substance that adds healthy bacteria to the gut. If your child develops eczema, consult a doctor about how you can reduce his or her risk of developing food allergies.