Results of a new study suggest giving probiotic supplements to high risk pregnant women and their babies following birth can reduce the risk of the infants developing eczema.
The many trillions of bacteria and other organisms that inhabit every human gut and comprise a teeming ecosystem are now known to interact with our immune systems and significantly influence their function. Researchers are therefore looking to probiotic supplements as possible preventive and tretament options for allergic conditions such as eczema.
Probiotics are microorganisms, mainly strains of bacteria and sometimes yeast, that inhabit our gastrointestinal tracts (and other areas of the body) are exert beneficial effects such as keeping pathogens at bay, producing certain vitamins (e.g. vitamin K), and producing substances known as short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) which help to nourish the cells of the small intestine and colon and keep them healthy.
A number of previous studies have been conducted to investigate the effects of probiotic supplements on immunity and specifically in allergic conditions such as eczema and asthma. Results however have been mixed, perhaps because of the many different types of probiotics that have been used.
This latest study used a probiotic product called Ecological Panda containing a specific mixture of probiotic bacteria; Bifidobacterium bifidum, Bifidobacterium lactis and Lactococcus lactis. Significant positive results were found when the product was given to pregnant women with a family history of atopic diseases (eczema, hayfever, asthma..) for the final 6 months of pregnancy and to their children during the first 12 months of their lives.
The study was of a double-blind, placebo controlled design, meaning that neither the women nor the researchers knew which women ad children were receiving the probiotic and which received a placebo pill. During the study parents were asked to report if their child had developed eczema.
During the first 3 months after birth there were significantly fewer cases of eczema in the probiotic group, only 6 children out of 50, compared with 15 children out of 52 in the placebo group.
Despite the rate of eczema in the two groups becoming more similar, the results showed there was still some benefit for up to two years.
In their paper in the journal Allergy, the researchers explain it would be necessary to treat approximately 6 mothers and children to prevent one case of eczema at the age of three months and 12 months, and closer to 7 children at two years i.e. the protective effects of the probiotic weaken slightly as children get older and the gut ecosystem becomes established.
In addition to the fewer reported cases of eczema in the probiotic group it was found that those children in the probiotic group had significantly lower levels of an immune chemical known as interleukin-5 (IL-5) in their blood. This chemical messenger is strongly associated with the allergic response and allergic diseases including eczema.
The researchers conclude that "This particular combination of probiotic bacteria shows a preventive effect on the incidence of eczema in high-risk children, which seems to be sustained during the first 2 years of life. In addition to previous studies, the preventive effect appears to be established within the first 3 months of life."
It must be noted however that one of the paper's 9 authors is employed by the company which manufactures the probiotic supplements used in the study, Winclove Bio Industries B.V., Amsterdam.
Reference: Niers L Martín R Rijkers G Sengers F Timmerman H van Uden N Smidt H Kimpen J Hoekstra M (2009) The effects of selected probiotic strains on the development of eczema (the Panda study) Allergy 64(9):1349-58