Probiotics for good health?
We investigate the uses of probiotics for children's healthy immune systems.

As a mom, you can possibly play a role in reducing your child's risk of asthma, allergies and eczema – simply by investing in a good probiotic supplement for yourself and your baby.

Probiotics, or "good" bacteria found in food and supplement form, have been shown to play a positive role in immune regulation, the absorption of nutrients, and the treatment of diarrhoea in both children and adults.

Now, scientists are finding that probiotic supplementation before and after birth can possibly reduce the incidence of asthma, allergies and eczema in children.

These findings were presented to the local medical and pharmaceutical industry by Prof Bengt Björkstén, professor of Allergy Prevention and Paediatrics at the Karolinska Institut in Stockholm, in Cape Town.

1. Asthma protection

Preliminary research shows that vaginal flora during pregnancy can play a role in whether a child develops asthma by the age of 5, according to Björkstén.

The research seems to indicate that this risk is specifically linked to a lack of Lactobacilli and an overabundance of Staphylococci in the vaginal flora – a situation that can easily be remedied by a good Lactobacilli supplement taken by the mom-to-be during the last four weeks of pregnancy.

The theory is simple: by ensuring a healthy microbial balance in the gut, the pregnant woman can boost the number of "good" bacteria present in other mucous membranes, such as the vagina.

During childbirth, the infant (who has a completely sterile gut) is exposed to these good bacteria, which immediately start to colonise his or her gastrointestinal tract.

And this colonisation process seems to have long-term positive effects on a child's immunity – and his or her protection from allergies and asthma.

2. Allergy protection

Recent research has opened another new door for the use of probiotics, based on the observation that the gastrointestinal flora differs between allergic and non-allergic children.

According to a theory known as the "hygiene hypothesis", babies who are born in sanitised hospitals and come home to sparkling clean homes may be more prone to develop allergies.

"It has been suggested that modern living is associated with too little microbial stimulation early in life and that allergic disease and autoimmune disease could be regarded as a consequence of a 'microbial deprivation syndrome'," Björkstén says.

Because children's bodies don't have to fight off as many bacteria as they did in the past, their immune systems start mistakenly attacking harmless substances, such as pet dander or pollen, causing allergic diseases.

Researchers hope to get more proof that, by giving the infant probiotics, his or her immune system is stimulated as it would be if the baby were exposed to bacteria in less clean surroundings.

3. Eczema protection

Studies have shown that infants with atopic eczema improve with probiotic Lactobacilli.

This type of eczema affects up to 20% of the population and is associated with asthma and hay fever.

Research also suggests that by changing the gut microflora in early infancy with the help of Lactobacilli, the child's risk of developing atopic eczema at a later stage is also reduced.

What to do

Currently, there are only a few strains of bacteria that can be safely recommended as having beneficial, probiotic qualities.

Many studies have confirmed the safety of the Lactobacilli strains. More specifically, Lactobacillus reuteri has been shown to be safe and effective in children who are malnourished or born prematurely.

Another family of bacteria, the Bifidobacterium group, is also generally regarded as safe.

Keep the following in mind when you are purchasing probiotics:

  • Ask your pharmacist or doctor to recommend a good probiotic, paying particular attention to strains that have been shown to provide benefits.
  • Don't choose a product that only makes vague statements about AB cultures or good bacteria.
  • Make sure the product contains the right number of strains: the product must deliver at least 100 million colony-forming units per dose to be effective.
Have you used probiotics before? How do you feel about them?

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