With as many as one in 10 children having asthma, the search for a root cause is an important one. The role that the microbiome plays in the development of asthma has been on researchers’ radar for quite some time. With the study of the Hygiene Hypothesis and recent information garnered from the study of Amish and Hutterite children, it seems clear that exposure to beneficial bacteria plays a protective role against the development of asthma. In fact, a 2015 study published in Science Translational Medicine found four gut bacteria (Lachnospira, Veillonella, Faecalibacterium, and Rothia) that appear to prevent asthma when found in the infant’s gut within the first three months of life.
A follow-up study to the one conducted in 2015 was presented at the Association for the Advancement of Science’s 2017 meeting. Researchers attempted to replicate the earlier findings by studying the stool samples and health records of 100 Ecuadorian children. What they found suggests that gut microbes offer a protective factor against the development of asthma. Additionally, they found that the children exposed to good, clean water actually had higher rates of asthma, likely due to their lower exposure to beneficial bacteria.
The new research also provides information about a yeast fungus called Pichia. Pichia occurs naturally in the environment and was not thought to be clinically harmful except in immune-compromised people. According to this new research, however, when Pichia is present during an infant’s first few months of life, it is associated with a higher risk of asthma.
So, what does this mean practically speaking? First, it is important to note that there is no need to over-sanitize your healthy child’s environment except where specified by your child’s physician. Basic handwashing with regular soap (not anti-bacterial) and water can adequately kill germs without creating resistant strains. Remember that some environmental exposures, like mice urine or cockroaches, actually increase the risk of asthma, so you don’t want to stop cleaning completely.
For children who already have asthma, however, the exposure to additional germs is likely to do more harm than good. If these studies can be repeated and proven in larger populations, it’s possible that we will reach a point in the future where specific probiotics are given to prevent illness. The science isn’t quite there yet, but the research does give hope that perhaps some asthma may eventually be prevented by alterations to the microbiome.
Jennifer has a bachelor's degree in dietetics as well as graduate work in public health and nutrition. She has worked with families dealing with digestive disease, asthma and food allergies for the past 12 years. Jennifer also serves the Board of Directors for Pediatric Adolescent Gastroesophageal Reflux Association (PAGER).