Probiotics in the Prevention and Treatment of Food Allergies

This article first appeared on the Protect Allergic Kids Web site in January of 2008.

Advertisers often want us to believe that in order to be healthy we must purge bacteria and viruses from our households. Beneficial bacteria, commonly referred to as probiotics, however, may be useful in preventing the onset and perhaps even treating food allergies.

Probiotics, consisting of live bacteria or their components are reported to have beneficial effects on overall health by improving the balance of bacteria in the intestines, resulting in better digestion. You have probably seen the ads and commercials for Dannon Yogurt’s Activa, which claim that the product aids digestion and prevents bloating. Dairy products, including yogurt, that contain the Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium species are major sources of probiotics.

People have known of the benefits of probiotics for over a century, but not until recently have researchers performed controlled clinical trials to study the beneficial effects of probiotics in the treatment of food allergies. The following two studies revealed some promising results:

  • Study 1: In infants and young children with milk allergy, two-month treatment with probiotics, along with a milk elimination diet, decreased the severity of their eczema.
  • Study 2: Expectant mothers were given either probiotics or placebo in pregnancy and during breastfeeding, as were their infants for the first six months following birth. At two years of age, 23 percent of children were reported to have atopic dermatitis (dermatitis caused by food allergy) in the probiotic-treated group compared with 46 percent in the placebo group, indicating that the probiotic had some effect on the prevention of early atopic disease in infants at high risk.

Although the results of these studies show some potential benefit of probiotics, particularly in preventing the onset of food allergies, even their effectiveness as a preventive is yet to be proven. The theory does make sense, however, and warrants some further study.

Many people with food allergies and parents of children with food allergies hear about probiotics and assume it to be the cure they’ve been waiting for. They want to know which products are best at preventing food allergies or turning off the immune system once the allergy has developed. Unfortunately, the science is so unclear at this stage that I would be skeptical of anyone’s recommendations on specific products. Until more conclusive data are available, stick with the standard treatments that your allergist recommends.