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Breastfeeding may boost immune system in infants

Posted:  Monday, February 23, 2015

A recent study found that breastfeeding and other maternal factors determine an infant’s immune system development and his/her susceptibility to asthma or other allergic conditions. The Henry Ford hospital’s long-running study titled Wayne County Health, Environment, Allergy and Asthma Longitudinal Study (WHEALS) yielded these results.

Funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, six separate studies aimed to explore whether breastfeeding and maternal and birth factors had any impact on a baby's gut microbiome and allergic and asthma outcomes. The researchers also evaluated the effect of the gut microbiome on the development of regulatory T-cells or Treg, which are known to regulate the immune system. The results of these studies will be presented at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology in Houston.

As part of the study, the researchers analysed stool samples taken from infants at 1 month and 6 months after birth. They found that breastfed infants at 1 month and 6 months had distinct microbial compositions compared to non-breastfed infants. This composition could potentially affect immune system development. Infants who were breastfed seemed to have a lower risk of becoming allergic to pets.

They also found that asthmatic children who experienced night-time flare ups showed a distinct microbial composition during the first year of life. Surprisingly, they found that gut microbiome composition was associated with increasing Treg cells. Apparently, factors such as maternal race/ethnicity, gestational age of the baby, prenatal and postnatal exposure to tobacco smoke, mode of delivery and the presence of pets at home seemed to affect the gut microbiome pattern in an infant.

These study findings support the hygiene hypothesis theory regarding early exposure to microorganisms and priming of the infant immune system. Talking about the results of the study the researchers said, "The research is telling us that exposure to a higher and more diverse burden of environmental bacteria and specific patterns of gut bacteria appears to boost the immune system’s protection against allergies and asthma,"

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