Breastfeeding, other factors help shape immune system early in life

February 21, 2015, Henry Ford Health System
Christine Cole Johnson, Ph.D., M.P.H., is chair of Henry Ford Hospital's Department of Public Health Sciences and principal research investigator. Credit: Henry Ford Hospital

Henry Ford Hospital researchers say that breastfeeding and other factors influence a baby's immune system development and susceptibility to allergies and asthma by what's in their gut.

The striking findings from a series of studies further advance the so-called hygiene hypothesis theory that early childhood exposure to microorganisms affects the immune system's development and onset of allergies, says Christine Cole Johnson, Ph.D., MPH, chair of Henry Ford's Department of Public Health Sciences and principal research investigator.

The is the collection of microorganisms in the gastrointestional, or GI, tract, and the has billions of these microbes. The GI tract contains what scientists often call a bacterial ecosystem. The gut microbiome is known to play an important role in immune system development, and is thought to contribute to a host of diseases like obesity, autoimmune diseases, circulating disorders and pediatric allergies and infection.

"For years now, we've always thought that a sterile environment was not good for babies. Our research shows why. Exposure to these microorganisms, or bacteria, in the first few months after birth actually help stimulate the immune system," Dr. Johnson says.

"The immune system is designed to be exposed to bacteria on a grand scale. If you minimize those exposures, the immune system won't develop optimally."

The studies are being presented at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology in Houston.

Credit: Henry Ford Hospital

The findings come from Henry Ford's long-running Wayne County Health, Environment, Allergy and Asthma Longitudinal Study (WHEALS), funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, that is exploring the role of environmental factors and measuring biological markers to understand how allergies and asthma develop early in life.

In six separate studies, researchers sought to evaluate whether breastfeeding and maternal and birth factors had any effect on a baby's gut microbiome and allergic and asthma outcomes. Using data collected from the WHEALS birth cohort, researchers analyzed stool samples from infants taken at one month and six months after birth. They also looked at whether the gut microbiome impacted the development of regulatory T-cells, or Treg, which are known to regulate the immune system. Highlights:

  • Breastfed babies at one month and six months had distinct microbiome compositions compared to non-breastfed babies. These distinct compositions may influence immune system development.
  • Breastfed babies at one month were at decreased risk of developing allergies to pets.
  • Asthmatic children who had nighttime coughing or flare-ups had a distinct microbiome composition during the first year of life.
  • For the first time, gut microbiome composition was shown to be associated with increasing Treg cells.

Researchers found that a baby's gut microbiome patterns vary by:

  • A mother's race/ethnicity.
  • A baby's gestational age at birth.
  • Prenatal and postnatal exposure to tobacco smoke.
  • Caesarean section versus vaginal delivery.
  • Presence of pets in the home.

Dr. Johnson and her team, which includes researchers at George Regents University, University of California-San Francisco and University of Michigan, have been at the forefront of research investigating how allergies develop in early life and the role of environmental factors. Henry Ford's landmark 2002 study found exposure to dogs or cats in the first year of a baby's life reduced their risk for allergies.

"The research is telling us that exposure to a higher and more diverse burden of environmental bacteria and specific patterns of bacteria appear to boost the 's protection against allergies and asthma," Dr. Johnson says.

Explore further: Babies born by C-section at risk of developing allergies, research says

Related Stories

Babies born by C-section at risk of developing allergies, research says

February 24, 2013
For expectant moms who may contemplate the pros and cons of natural child birth or Caesarian section, a Henry Ford Hospital study suggests that C-section babies are susceptible to developing allergies by age two.

Another breastfeeding benefit: Preparing baby's belly for solid food

February 5, 2015
The moment of birth marks the beginning of a beautiful, lifelong relationship between a baby and the billions of microbes that will soon colonize his or her gastrointestinal tract.

Research shows how household dogs protect against asthma and infection

December 16, 2013
Children's risk for developing allergies and asthma is reduced when they are exposed in early infancy to a dog in the household, and now researchers have discovered a reason why.

Prenatal pet exposure, delivery mode, race are key factors in early allergy risk

August 8, 2011
Prenatal pet exposure, a mother's delivery mode and race are influential factors in a child's risk of developing allergies by age 2, according to a Henry Ford Hospital study.

You are what you eat: How gut bacteria affect brain health

January 22, 2015
The hundred trillion bacteria living in an adult human—mostly in the intestines, making up the gut microbiome—have a significant impact on behavior and brain health. The many ways gut bacteria can impact normal brain ...

Breastfeeding promotes the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut

May 7, 2014
A number of studies have shown that breastfed babies grow slightly slower and are slightly slimmer than children who are fed with infant formula. Children who are breastfed also have a slightly lower incidence of obesity, ...

Recommended for you

HIV vaccine protects non-human primates from infection

December 14, 2018
For more than 20 years, scientists at Scripps Research have chipped away at the challenges of designing an HIV vaccine. Now new research, published in Immunity, shows that their experimental vaccine strategy works in non-human ...

RNA processing and antiviral immunity

December 14, 2018
The RIG-I like receptors (RLRs) are intracellular enzyme sentries that detect viral infection and initiate a first line of antiviral defense. The cellular molecules that activate RLRs in vivo are not clear.

The 'greying' of T cells: Scientists pinpoint metabolic pathway behind age-related immunity loss

December 13, 2018
The elderly suffer more serious complications from infections and benefit less from vaccination than the general population. Scientists have long known that a weakened immune system is to blame but the exact mechanisms behind ...

Scientists create most accurate tool yet developed to predict asthma in young children

December 13, 2018
Scientists at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center have created and tested a decision tool that appears to be the most accurate, non-invasive method yet developed to predict asthma in young children.

New genetic study could lead to better treatment of severe asthma

December 12, 2018
The largest-ever genetic study of people with moderate-to-severe asthma has revealed new insights into the underlying causes of the disease which could help improve its diagnosis and treatment.

Researchers discover unique immune cell likely drives chronic inflammation

December 11, 2018
For the first time, researchers have identified that an immune cell subset called gamma delta T cells that may be causing and/or perpetuating the systemic inflammation found in normal aging in the general geriatric population ...

2 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Vietvet
1 / 5 (2) Feb 21, 2015
Why would someone give this 1 star?
Whydening Gyre
5 / 5 (1) Feb 22, 2015
Not sure on that one, VV.
But it IS a reminder that kids do need more dirt in their diet and lifestyle...:-)
Pigpen is prob'ly the healthiest (as an adult) of the whole Charlie Brown bunch...:-)

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.