The Second Brain: Our Microbiome

Over the years, we’ve written many blogs about the microbiome. We’re learning more about the concept of our gut as our “second brain” and how this mighty microbiome may be linked to food allergies. Here are a few examples of our previous blogs that touch on this subject, and this isn’t even the full list! 😜

Four Easy Steps to Improve Gut Health

Do Dogs Prevent Allergies?

Is Monsanto Giving Us Food Allergies?

Scientists Find Link Between Antacid & Antibiotic Exposure and Food Allergies & Asthma

Somehow, we’ve never written a blog solely dedicated to the microbiome—we’re changing that today. Let’s start with the million-dollar question: could manipulating our microbiome treat food allergies? 

Dr. Cathryn Nagler, a University of Chicago immunologist, seems to think so. As early as two decades ago, she suspected that the body’s own bacteria plays a role in food allergies. She’s spent the past several years proving this theory. Interestingly, a peanut allergy mice model developed by Mount Sinai in 2000 is what really persuaded Dr. Nagler to think about how humans respond to dietary antigens and the role of the gut microbiome. 

Fast forward to the present day—an influx of researchers are now rushing to explore how the microbiome relates to food allergies. In fact, there are several “gut” studies in the works today. The University of Chicago and Boston Children’s Hospital are hard at work leading three of these studies, which evaluate: 1) prebiotic dietary fibers and how they could prevent or treat food allergies; 2) the safety and efficacy of fecal microbiota transplants in peanut-allergic kids; and 3) the protective effect of targeting a new pathway in the gut to stop anaphylaxis. We look forward to seeing updates and findings on these studies in the near future. 

To find out more about the latest research on the microbiome, we recently tuned in to a talk with Dr. Wayne Shreffler, the Division Chief of Pediatric Allergy and Immunology at Massachusetts General Hospital. In addition to discussing the latest research, he spoke about some of the mysteries surrounding the microbiome.

Below are some of the key takeaways and discuss topics.  

How is nutrition linked to gut health?

Did you know that there are more bacteria in your gut than cells in your entire body?! Although many people associate bacteria with disease, the majority of the microbes living ON us and IN us are actually beneficial! They help us digest our food, provide key nutrients, and protect us against infection. 

According to Dr. Shreffler, we’re getting less fiber in our modern diets, which can lead to health issues, such as fewer prebiotics in our gut. Prebiotics are nondigestible food ingredients, typically high in fiber, that promote the health of the good microorganisms. You can think of them as visitors to your body—they come and go—that’s why it’s important to continually replenish these healthy visitors via proper dietary choices. Examples include whole grains, bananas, greens, onions, garlic, and artichokes.

Since a lot of the foods we consume today were foreign to our bodies just a century ago, some experts think that the rise in food allergies and intolerances can be attributed to the introduction of these foreign compounds—our bodies simply can’t handle them! 

The microbiome is complex, and recent research is underscoring just how interconnected gut health is to our overall health and wellbeing. As a wise person once put it, if Mama isn’t happy, then nobody’s happy. Substitute “gut” for “mama” and you get the picture. 🤣

Mama’s microbiome

Evidence that a mother’s gut health may help protect babies from developing food allergies is on the rise. In fact, one study found that Prevotella copri, a bacteria that ferments fiber from our foods into fatty acids, has been linked to a reduction of peanut-specific allergic reactions in the offspring of mice with a fiber-rich diet. If this translates the same way in humans, it’s possible our diets could prevent—or treat—allergies to peanuts (and possibly other allergens). Only time will tell. 

Eczema, oral-immunotherapy (OIT), and food allergies

As an infant, my daughter had terrible eczema. I look back now and wonder if that was an early sign of her impending nut allergy diagnosis? It begs the question, is there a connection? 

According to Dr. Peter Lio, assistant professor of dermatology and pediatrics at Northwestern University, food allergies are considered an official comorbidity (or related health condition) of atopic dermatitis, asthma, allergic rhinitis (hay fever), and depression. Researchers have found that up to 30% of people with atopic dermatitis also have food allergies. 

During Dr. Shreffler’s talk, he spoke about this correlation and talked about the skin microbiome. “It’s very clear that skin inflammation is a very significant risk factor for all food allergies,” said Dr. Shreffler. He also pointed to a growing body of research around oral immunotherapy (OIT)—which we discuss in this post—and pointed out that early OIT trials have not studied the impact of OIT on the microbiome.  

Fecal transplantation is a thing? 

Yes. Fecal microbiota transplant (FMT) is the transfer of stool from a healthy donor into the gastrointestinal tract of the recipient. When too many “good” bacteria in the digestive tract are killed off, research is showing that fecal transplantation can help replenish the bacterial balance. This state of imbalance in the body’s microbial ecosystem is called dysbiosis.

In fact, the food allergy community has taken note of this approach, and one such trial out of Boston Children’s Hospital, led by Dr. Rima Rachid, is underway to evaluate its efficacy on peanut allergy patients. 

The hygiene hypothesis and other factors

There are lots of theories out there as to why our modern society has a collective weakened microbiome. 

One hypothesis is that there are certain Western lifestyle factors that are disrupting the otherwise “normal” balance in gut bacteria. Some of these include a decline in breastfeeding, an increase in Caesarean section births, the increased use of antibiotics, smaller family sizes, less contact with farm animals, and an increased use in disinfecting products and chemicals, to name a few. 

We discuss the hygiene hypothesis and some other leading theories as to the rise in food allergies in-depth in this previous blog post. 

Top ways to improve gut health

The good news is that there are several ways you can improve gut health and strengthen your microbiome. A few great examples include eating unprocessed foods that are high in fiber, getting plenty of sleep, reducing stress, and choosing probiotic and prebiotic-rich foods.

Indeed, as the wise Hippocrates is believed to have said, Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.

– Meg and the Allergy Amulet Team 

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