From asthma to heart disease, low mood, and lower energy levels, researchers have increasingly linked a growing number of conditions to a common culprit: our microbiome. According to the gut theory, factors in our environment like fatty diets and overexposure to antibiotics have starved us of the diverse bacterial population we need to wield a strong immune system. Compared to people who eat more traditional (non-processed) diets in other parts of the world, experts say our increasingly incomplete or sterile microbiome — the population of about 100 trillion bacteria living in your body and mainly your gut — could be why obesity, diabetes, bowel disease, and now food allergies are increasing in the West.
Adding to a growing body of evidence pertaining to gut health, researchers from the University of Chicago recently found that changing the community of bacteria inside a mouse's gut can effectively relieve their allergies to peanuts.
As part of their experiment, the researchers looked at mice with reduced bacteria in their guts from exposure to antibiotics as well as mice with no bacteria in their gut. All of these mice had a preexisting peanut allergy. But when they exposed the mice to a particular mix of bacteria that should be predominant in the intestine, the new bacteria appeared to protect the mice from their old sensitivity to peanuts. Diversity, says the study's co-author, Taylor Feehley, is key when it comes to bacteria in the gut.
The bacteria blocked the peanut allergens from entering the blood so that the immune system — detecting no trace of peanuts — made no fuss about the allergies.
"The gut microbiota is a huge control center wired into many facets of our biology," says Justin Sonnenburg, a Stanford University microbiologist who studies the link between diet and the gut. "It has its hands on the controls of the immune system and is constantly tuning aspects of our biology. In the presence of the wrong microbiota and the absence of the right ones, the immune system malfunctions and we could end up with allergies."
For now, that means eating well — with our gut health in mind. "The takeaway is that we have to be careful about what we put into our bodies," Feehley says. "Don't take antibiotics excessively. Eat plant-based foods more than meat. Feed this other population in our bodies, because they control a lot of processes that we didn't know before." This means making sure you have a diverse bacteria community by eating more fiber, consuming fermented foods like Greek yogurt and even embracing germs by spending time outdoors gardening.
Researchers hold out hope that one day we could have an allergy-killing pill. The study's lead author, Cathryn Nagler, says the team is now working on creating a new probiotic treatment for food allergy that could help reinforce the current treatment doctors use: desensitization, where increasing amounts of the food allergen are given over the course of months. "If you can change the microbiota to increase immune tolerance to food antigens, perhaps you can use the microbiota to help the immune system desensitize to existing allergens," says Sonnenburg. For those hauling around food allergies, a probiotic pill would certainly beat asking your waiter about the nut, soy, or wheat content of every item on a menu.
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