Allergy Prevention in Children
Adding fish oil to the diet and avoiding dust mite allergens in the home may decrease the chance that high-risk children will develop allergic illnesses, according to a study in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology (2004;114:807–13).
Children whose family members have allergic conditions such as asthma, hay fever, and eczema are at much higher risk of developing these conditions themselves, so strategies for preventing allergic diseases are particularly important for them. To avoid developing allergies, doctors recommend minimizing children’s exposure to cigarette smoke and common allergens such as dust mites and animal dander in the home. Breast-feeding also gives children some protection from allergic illnesses.
Allergic illnesses are characterized by excessive inflammation, and treatments for these conditions often focus on reducing the inflammation. Antihistamines such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl™) are used for hay fever, inhaled corticosteroids such as fluticasone (Flovent™) for asthma, and topical corticosteroid creams for eczema. All of these medications have the potential to cause unwanted side effects.
Fish oil contains high amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, substances that have been shown to decrease inflammation in the body. When the balance between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids is disturbed in the body, inflammation can result. Omega-6 fatty acids are mostly found in animal fats and vegetable oils such as sunflower and safflower oils.
There is evidence that children who regularly consume oily fish are less likely to develop asthma. No studies have been conducted, however, using fish oil as a dietary supplement for preventing allergic illnesses in young children. The new three-year study investigated the effects of omega-3 fatty acid supplementation from fish oil and dust-mite-allergen avoidance on the development of allergic symptoms in 526 children at high risk for developing asthma. Children were considered high-risk if at least one parent or sibling had asthma or frequent wheezing. While the mothers were still pregnant, the children were assigned to one of the following treatment groups: a dust-mite-allergen avoidance group, a control group given no advice about dust-mite avoidance, a dietary intervention group, or a dietary control group.
Families of participants in the dust-mite-allergen avoidance group were given allergen-impermeable covers to place on the baby’s mattress and a hypoallergenic play mat to decrease contact with carpet. This group was instructed to wash the bedding and play mat with a mite-killing detergent every three months, and was provided with advice on cleaning measures to reduce dust in the home. The group not counseled about dust-mite avoidance was given general cleaning advice.
The dietary intervention was intended to increase the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids in the children’s diets. Caregivers in the dietary intervention group were given 500 mg tuna fish oil capsules containing 184 mg of omega-3 fatty acids to add to the child’s food each day starting at six months of age until age three. They were also provided with canola oil and canola-based spreads for use in food preparation (canola oil is also high in omega-3 fatty acids). The dietary control group was given placebo oil capsules and soy-based oils and spreads for cooking.
At age three, the children were assessed for the presence of asthma, eczema, cough, and wheezing. Skin prick tests were performed to determine if the children were allergic to various ingested and inhaled allergens. Among those children with allergies (as diagnosed by skin prick tests), there was a 10% decrease in cough in the dietary intervention group as compared with the dietary control group. There was also a significant decrease in dust-mite allergies among the children in the dust-mite-avoidance group. No significant differences between the groups were noted in the rates of asthma, wheezing, or eczema.
Because the presence of allergies early in life is associated with the later development of asthma, the decrease in dust mite allergies in the avoidance group is noteworthy. In addition, dietary changes that include the addition of fish oil appear to decrease the allergic inflammation that leads to coughing.
Kimberly Beauchamp, ND, received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Rhode Island and her Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University in Kenmore, WA. She is a co-founder and practicing physician at South County Naturopaths, Inc., in Wakefield, RI. Dr. Beauchamp teaches holistic medicine classes and provides consultations focusing on detoxification and whole-foods nutrition.
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