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Here's How Exposure To Allergy-Causing Foods Reduces Babies' Risk For Allergy

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A new study finds that feeding peanut mush to babies could be the best way to prevent allergies to the legume. But how does this daring move actually help them build up tolerance for the common allergen?

In the LEAP-ON study, a follow-up to the landmark LEAP study last year that demonstrated how early exposure to the allergen built up tolerance and reduced allergy risk in 80 percent of the subjects, followed 556 of the original 640 children for a year of avoiding peanuts.

Seeking to answer the question of whether youngsters who consumed peanuts for over four years were protected long enough against peanut allergy even when they stopped consuming the food, the follow-up study has found that only 4.8 percent of the original peanut consumers became allergic. This was a significant difference from the 18.6 percent of the original peanut avoiders who contracted the allergy.

According to lead author Dr. Gideon Lack of Kings College London, the results exceeded their expectations, showing how peanut consumption offered "stable and sustained protection" against the allergy.

"This protective effect occurred irrespective of whether the children completely avoided peanut for one year or continued to eat it sporadically," he says.

But how is it possible to keep allergy at bay through this method?

Immune Tolerance Network Director Dr. Gerald Nepom, who was not involved in the study, explains that with peanut consumption, the immune system appears to remember and sustain tolerance. This occurs even without continuous regular exposure to the allergy-inducing food.

A separate study published last year in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, showed that kids exposed to allergenic food items such as peanut, eggs, and soy as early as 4 to 6 months old stood the best chance of avoiding food allergy later on. Likely the same mechanism was at work, going against previous prevailing belief of immunologists that children should be kept away from such foods.

Dr. Edmond Chan, co-author of a Canadian Pediatric Society statement on allergy prevention in high-risk babies, however, reminded that food allergies are rooted on a combination of genetic and environmental factors rather than a single cause.

"Other environmental factors likely include: ability to manage eczematous skin, the hygiene hypothesis, and other possible factors (such as the role of probiotics, omega 3 fatty acids, vitamin D, etc)," he says in a 2014 interview.

Despite its seeming effectiveness in thwarting food allergies later on, parents are advised to perform early introduction of allergenic foods gradually and with proper medical supervision.

Physicians are the ones able to determine the correct dose of the allergen in order to alter the immune system without inciting a serious reaction.

Photo: Daniella Segura | Flickr

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