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Probiotics and Allergy

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A recent review article suggests that the bacteria symbiotically found in the intestines play a key role in allergy. The author describes the “intestinal immune system” as the largest component of our total immune system. It has the unique property of distinguishing beneficial bacteria from pathogenic ones. Intestinal infections by viruses, protozoa, and helminthic worms, as well as bacteria, are common. In addition, food contains many potential allergens. When everything works perfectly, the lining of the intestines mounts an inflammatory response against the pathogenic invaders but not the many non-self proteins that it encounters every day.

Lactobacillus and Bifisobacterium species are widely sold as probiotic dietary supplements. Many other types of bacteria can be isolated from the intestines of healthy people. It is still not established how many different species should “normally” be present. I have seen dietary supplements with several dozen species listed, including some that do not sound healthy, such as streptococcus.

The hygiene theory, introduced in 1989, suggests that children who have too few infections are more likely to develop allergies such as hay fever. Our immune systems have evolved to fight numerous infections, and according to the British researcher D. P. Strachan, we need a certain amount of exposure to pathogens in early childhood in order to develop a healthy and well regulated immune response. This idea has been expanded by many researchers.

The Japanese researcher K. Takahashi examined the role of IgE receptors in allergic reactions. He reported numerous anti-allergy effects of probiotics, including a correlation between atopic eczema (skin rash) and intestinal bacteria in children. He concluded that “control of the interaction between the intestinal immune system and intestinal commensal bacteria is a key factor in regulating allergy.”

Other researchers are expanding the definition of “probiotic” to include helminthic worms for the treatment of autoimmune disease.

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It is hard to imagine a more knotty problem than the interaction of probiotic bacteria and our immune systems. The main reason, of course, is that they are both still more mystery than certainty. Then you take all the variables in each, combine them, and the permutations make understanding a real challenge.

The question implied by the article on allergies is "If I take probiotics and they 'strengthen' my immune system will I be more likely to suffer auto-immune disorders or malfunctions?" A good question and one I have asked myself.

The short answer, I think, is this: when the immune system makes a mistake and reacts to something not a threat--like my recently acquired serious allergy to beef, pork and lamb--it is not because it is weak or strong so much as it is responding to a stimulant that it mistakes for a threat. Of course, that's just one of the problems a rogue immune system can get us into. But here is the other side of that answer: there is absolutely NO evidence that a weak or weakened immune system gives you any health advantage nor is there any evidence that it won't make the same mistakes that a strong immune system might. In fact, recent research at the University of Virginia now thinks that my allergic reaction to beef, pork and lamb isn't to a protein (the usual triggers) but to a sugar. All of this is due to a tick bite(s) that has confused my immune system into thinking that a Philly cheesesteak or a pork chop is actually a giant tick injecting me with its saliva! Or something close to that.

Keep your immune system strong. It is, I think, better than the alternative.

June 6, 2011 - 10:15am
EmpowHER Guest

That's the best asnwer of all time! JMHO

June 2, 2011 - 1:37pm

Dr. Fugate is correct when she says, in effect, we don't know exactly what happens or how things work when we add a probiotic supplement to our diet. What we do know is that effective probiotic supplements DO work to our benefit.

A big part of the problem in making an effective probiotic supplement is manufacturing commercially viable probiotic strains. It is one thing to have probiotic bugs to work with in the lab but altogether a different challenge to keep them alive on the shelf for the consumer. I know. It took us seven years to find a way to keep the Chr. Hansen strains we use alive on the shelf without refrigeration. And that seven years of research means about six years of failure before we got it right.

And the notion that if some is good then more must be better sure sounds reasonable and with butter pecan ice cream or Indian summer days that may be true. But we found in our research that combining lots of strains in a capsule or tablet doomed some strains because of competition and other adverse effects. Just as understanding gut ecology with its hundered of strains and trillions of bugs still eludes us, so to are the dynamics of probiotic bacteria in combination still a thing of mystery. We know that some "good" strains really don't "like" each other but we don't know why. So Dr. Fugate's decision to stick with L. acidopholus is a good one. It works and saves her some money.

And remember, You Are What You Absorb!

(Link to commercial website removed by EmpowHER moderator.)

September 16, 2010 - 5:05pm
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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.


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