More Than a Gut Feeling About Children’s Allergies

Where do childhood allergies come from? Theories abound, but groundbreaking research points to one place: imbalances in the gut microbiome.


Allergies have become increasingly common worldwide, affecting millions of people. In Canada, one in three children suffer from allergies, highlighting the need to understand why they arise and how to prevent them.

A team of researchers from the University of British Columbia, led by Dr. Stuart Turvey — a professor in the Faculty of Medicine — have discovered gut microbiome features correlated with children developing common allergies such as eczema, food allergies, asthma, and hay fever.

Their findings could reshape predictions and preventative measures against the development of allergies during childhood. Their results were published in Nature Communications.

The gut microbiome is a complex ecosystem of microorganisms that reside within our gastrointestinal tract, including bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other microbes. This ecosystem is home to trillions of microorganisms — collectively known as the gut microbiota — and it plays a crucial role in various aspects of our health.

The study analyzed clinical assessments of 1,115 children from birth to age 5. Roughly half of the children showed no signs of allergies, while the other half were diagnosed with one or more allergic disorders by expert physicians. The researchers studied the children’s microbiomes using stool samples collected at three months and one year of age.

The researchers discovered a specific signature of the gut microbiome in early life that was consistently associated with four distinct allergic diagnoses that developed by the age of 5: eczema, asthma, food allergy, and hay fever. This signature is a hallmark of an imbalanced gut microbiome, which can increase inflammation in the gut.

Several factors can influence the infant gut microbiota, including diet, mode of birth, geographic location, and antibiotic exposure. Antibiotics, for instance, may disrupt sensitive bacteria, while breastfeeding tends to replenish and nourish the infant gut microbiota. The study showed that antibiotic use in the first year of life was more likely to lead to later allergic disorders, while breastfeeding for the first six months appeared to offer protection against allergies, a finding consistent across all the studied allergic disorders.

This groundbreaking research suggests that the maturation of the gut microbiome in early childhood could be a crucial focal point for identifying deviations from normal development that might predict and even prevent allergic diseases. While more research is needed to understand this relationship’s intricacies fully, these findings open up exciting possibilities for the future of allergy prevention and treatment.

By unraveling the mysteries of the gut microbiome and its connection to allergies, researchers are paving the way for innovative approaches to allergy prevention and management. As we continue to unlock the secrets of this complex ecosystem within us, we may one day find new strategies to keep allergies at bay and improve the lives of millions of individuals affected by these conditions.

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Sumayya Abdul Qadir is a PhD student in the Department of Molecular Genetics at the University of Toronto where she also earned her Bsc in Molecular Genetics and Immunology. Sumayya’s passion for science communication is driven by the desire to bridge the gap between complex scientific concepts and the general public, fostering understanding, curiosity, and engagement with the wonders of the scientific world.