May 29, 2003 -- Putting bacteria back into the equation for expectant mothers and infants may help reduce the risk of developing eczema (or dermatitis, as it is sometimes called) well into childhood.
A new study shows children of women who took supplements of Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG (Lactobacillus GG) around the time of childbirth were half as likely to develop atopic eczema by age 4 than those who did not.
Researchers say the prevalence of allergic diseases, such as atopic eczema, among infants and children has grown in recent years in developed countries. Atopic dermatitis is the most common form of eczema and is closely associated with hay fever and asthma. Some say the increase in eczema may be attributed to a lack of adequate exposure to bacteria in early life, which is crucial to the development of a healthy immune system.
This "hygiene hypothesis" also holds that a healthy bacterial balance in the intestines is especially important in the development of a mature immune system, and the use of probiotic supplements like Lactobacillus GG can stimulate the growth of beneficial bacteria in baby's stomach. The theory is that healthy bacteria will crowd out harmful bugs and allow the immune system to develop resistance to potentially harmful bacteria.
Lactobacillus GGis a type of bacteria that rarely causes harm in humans, is commonly added to milk to make yogurt, and is often taken in supplement form to prevent food allergies.
In the study, researchers randomly assigned 159 pregnant women to take Lactobacillus GG or placebo pills twice a day for four weeks prior to their expected delivery date. For six months after delivery either the mother or the infant took the supplement during breastfeeding.
After two years, the children who were exposed to Lactobacillus GG were half as likely to develop atopic eczema than the others, and the benefits continued into childhood.
In a follow-up report published in the May 31 issue of The Lancet, the same group of researchers report that after four years, the children who were exposed to the probiotic were 40% less likely to have atopic eczema than the children in the placebo group.
"Our findings show that the preventive effect of Lactobacillus GG on atopic eczema in at-risk children extends to the age of 4," write researcher Marco Kalliomäki and colleagues from Turku University Central Hospital in Finland.
But researchers say they can't say yet whether early exposure to Lactobacillus GG might also protect against allergy or asthma because these conditions typically develop at an older age.
SOURCE: The Lancet, May 31, 2003. WebMD Medical News: "Kids, Time for Milk and ... Bacteria!"