(NaturalNews) An estimated 15 million Americans suffer from food allergies, affecting one in every 13 children, and nearly $25 billion is spent annually on treating children's food allergies. If left untreated, patients can enter into anaphylaxis, a reaction to food allergens or insect stings that includes swelling of the mouth and throat, difficulty breathing, gastrointestinal problems such as severe vomiting, incredibly painful cramping and diarrhea. Often, the symptoms occur all at once, creating an excruciating and sometimes deadly experience.
The amount of children with food allergies has increased about 50 percent between 1997 and 2011, according to statistics provided in 2013 by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Little is known about why the body reacts so violently to certain foods; however, some suggest that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) could be contributing to the rise. Imported genes derived from GM crops produce new proteins which are foreign to the body and could therefore cause a reaction.
Our immune systems are designed to attack foreign agents, including bacteria and viruses; however, while ingesting food, this "killer-instinct" needs to be suppressed, a phenomenon called "oral tolerance," according to American Scientist. In order to do this, the body must balance the immune system's "aggression and tolerance," thus creating a state of equilibrium that can prevent allergic reactions to foods.
Probiotic therapy could be answer to food allergies
Researchers at the University of Chicago have discovered that the introduction of a common class of gut bacteria called Clostridia minimizes the sensitivity to allergens, suggesting that probiotics could be groundbreaking for treating food allergies.
During their experiment, scientists investigated their theory by exposing germ-free mice that were born and raised in sterile conditions with no resident microorganisms, and mice treated with antibiotics as infants, to peanut allergens. Administering antibiotics to infants has proven to significantly reduce both good and bad gut bacteria.
"Environmental stimuli such as antibiotic overuse, high fat diets, caesarean birth, removal of common pathogens and even formula feeding have affected the microbiota with which we've co-evolved," said study senior author Cathryn Nagler, PhD, Bunning Food Allergy Professor at the University of Chicago. "Our results suggest this could contribute to the increasing susceptibility to food allergies."
According to the results, both groups of mice exhibited a "strong immunological response," which produced higher levels of antibodies against peanut allergens than the mice with normal gut bacteria.
Clostridia bacteria induce "barrier-protective response" against food allergens
Researchers predicted that they could reverse this sensitization to food allergens by introducing a mix of Clostridia bacteria back into the mice. To test this theory, they also tried introducing a similar group of intestinal bacteria called Bacteroides, but it failed, indicating that Clostridia perform uniquely in protecting against allergens.
Further analysis revealed that Clostridia cause innate immune cells to produce high levels of interleukin-22 (IL-22), a molecule that signals the intestinal lining to decrease permeability.
Antibiotic-treated mice were either colonized with Clostridia or given IL-22. After being exposed to peanut allergens, both groups exhibited "reduced allergen levels in their blood, compared to controls."
The allergen levels in the mice's blood "significantly increased" after being given antibodies that neutralized the effects of IL-22, "indicating that Clostridia-induced IL-22 prevents allergens from entering the bloodstream."
"We've identified a bacterial population that protects against food allergen sensitization," Nagler said. "The first step in getting sensitized to a food allergen is for it to get into your blood and be presented to your immune system. The presence of these bacteria regulates that process."
Nagler warns that the findings likely only apply at a population level, because further studies need to be completed on the cause-and-effect relationship in individuals.
"It's exciting because we know what the bacteria are; we have a way to intervene," added Nagler. "There are of course no guarantees, but this is absolutely testable as a therapeutic against a disease for which there's nothing. As a mom, I can imagine how frightening it must be to worry every time your child takes a bite of food."
Nagler and her team are developing methods for using probiotic therapy to treat food allergies and have filed for a provisional patent on the work.