Global research indicates breastmilk prevents food allergies

Professor Valérie Verhasselt, the Larssen-Rosenquist Director of Centre of Research for Immunology and Breastfeeding at UWA and Telethon Kids Institute, says exposing infants to allergens through breastmilk rather than food was very different.

Mothers who breastfeed produce signals that influence the immune system development of their babies and help to prevent future food allergies, according to new global research.

World-leading breastfeeding experts, from The University of Western Australia, Telethon Kids Institute, and a German research institution, published new evidence highlighting that the allergens in breastmilk could be key to educating a child’s immune response.

The research indicates that 10% of children in Western countries already have a food allergy by the age of one and this evidence could help guide maternal health advice and alleviate the worldwide burden of allergic disease.

The findings, published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, supported the concept that being exposed to allergens in breastmilk was unique and very different from allergen exposure in non-breastfed infants.

Breastfed infants are exposed to multiple allergens, originating from maternal diet and the environment, likely to be found in their diet and environment after weaning.

If not breastfed, infants would not be exposed to most of these allergens before weaning and consequently would not receive this preparation to the external world.

In addition to the many allergens found in breast milk compared to formula, Professor Valérie Verhasselt, the Larssen-Rosenquist Director of Centre of Research for Immunology and Breastfeeding at UWA and Telethon Kids Institute, says exposing infants to allergens through breastmilk rather than food was very different.

“In breastmilk, only a minute dosage would reach the child compared with when administered through food to the child,” says Professor Verhasselt.

“The allergen is also found pre-digested, bound to antibodies and surrounded by a ‘soup’ of molecules that can modulate the immune system. This may be especially designed for early life immune system education and preventing harm.”

Professor Verhasselt says a better understanding of the specificities of allergen exposure through breastmilk should lead to more evidence-based health interventions to prevent allergies in early life, including maternal and child diets.

“We know breastmilk has an incredible ability to protect offspring from infectious disease and many of the compounds found in human milk have the required characteristics to instruct immune development and prevent allergy,” she says.

“However, understanding how to control this will require many more years of research.”