Atopic dermatitis, a form of eczema, affects about 20% of infants and young children, making it the most common chronic inflammatory skin disease. Any parent who’s had to deal with this itchy, uncomfortable condition knows how difficult it can be for both parents and child. But a solution may exist in the form of…bacteria?
A study by researchers at the University of California at Davis School of Medicine published in the Archives of Dermatology finds that children given probiotics – “good bacteria” that live in the intestine and help with the digestive process – may develop fewer and less severe skin problems.
Researchers analyzed the results of 21 different studies, which followed nearly 11,000 participants at risk for developing eczema, a combination of infants and mothers who were either pregnant or breastfeeding. Of the total participants, 6,859 received supplements and 4,134 served as controls and did not receive supplementation. Thirteen studies focused on infants with a family history of atopic disease; six studies involved infants who did and did not have a family history of atopic disease, and one study focused on infants with no family history of the condition. The majority of the studies supplemented both mothers and infants.
"The addition of a probiotic in mothers and infants during the pre- and postnatal period prevented the development of atopic dermatitis two years beyond infancy."
Some studies divided participants into two groups, supplementing one group with the probiotic Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG or Lactobacillus rhamnosus strain HN001 and the other group with a placebo. In each case, the probiotic supplementation group developed about 50% fewer skin conditions compared to the placebo group, and authors concluded that Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG or HN001 could prevent atopic dermatitis in at-risk infants.
In follow-up studies, the addition of this probiotic in mothers and infants during the pre- and postnatal period prevented the development of atopic dermatitis two years beyond infancy. Further follow-up until age seven showed that the children continued to have reduced incidence of eczema compared to the placebo group.
The same positive results were not found with other single-probiotic supplementation studies, however, and results were mixed compared to the success of Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG and HN001.
Other studies that used a mixture of probiotics, including strains of Lactobacillus rhamnosus, Bifidobacterium bifidum, Bifidobacterium lactis, or L. acidophilus also saw decreases in incidences of atopic dermatitis.
Studies on prebiotics – dietary components that promote the growth of good intestinal flora – were also analyzed, and while two found that prebiotic supplements helped reduce the incidence of eczema, one study found that supplementation did not affect eczema severity in children afflicted with the condition.
Special types of infant formula, hydrolyzed or amino acid-based, were also studied, and results were inconclusive, with some studies finding a reduction in eczema occurrence and others finding no differences.
Lead study author Negar Foolad says, “It is intriguing to learn that probiotics, which [are] only present inside the intestine, are able to remotely affect the skin…I’m hoping researchers will continue to study these supplements to see if their findings can contribute to new therapeutic options for infants predisposed to eczema.”
The Bottom Line
This is good news for infants, young children, and parents affected by atopic dermatitis. It’s even better news that since probiotics are natural, you’re not introducing a drug to an infant or small child. These studies confirm the importance of providing good nutrition to babies, infants and young children. No surprise there.
What’s interesting is the growing frequency with which pregnant women are given supplements in the hope of producing an effect on infants. These results remind me of a study that showed pregnant women supplemented with Omega-3s had children that performed better on IQ tests, were more sociable, and demonstrated better motor coordination.
Science and medicine are just beginning to scratch the surface of the possibilities of probiotic supplementation. Since the mid-1990s, clinical studies have shown that probiotic therapy can benefit certain gastrointestinal disorders, delay the development of allergies in children, and treat and prevent vaginal and urinary infections in women.
Best of all, probiotics are already present in our bodies, making them generally safe for most people (with the rare exception of individuals with impaired immune function).
For more information on the benefits of probiotic supplementation, see our guide to probiotics.