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Quick Summary: A new study suggests women living in a traditional farming Mennonite community can generate immunity through long-term exposure to farm animals and foods.

The study suggests babies can acquire some of this protection against allergic diseases through their mother’s milk.

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More details:

The new study compared breast milk produced by mothers from a traditional farming community to the breast milk of mothers living in a nearby city with a modern urban lifestyle.

The study found breast milk from mothers living in an old order Mennonite community in New York state have higher levels of beneficial antibodies, microbes and metabolites.

This could impact the development of the infant microbiome and the infant immune system. The result is that breast milk produced by Mennonite mothers may better protect babies from allergies.

According to Co-author Dr Antti E. Seppo, an associate professor at the Department of Pediatrics of the University of Rochester:

“Our findings indicate that that breast milk from old order Mennonite mothers contains higher levels of beneficial antibodies, microbes and metabolites that help to ‘program’ the developing gut microbiota and immune system of their babies. These may protect infants against developing allergic diseases."

The new research by Seppo AE et al., was published in October 2021 in Frontiers in Immunology.

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About allergies and atopic disease

Over the past few decades, rates of atopic disease and allergies have sky-rocketed.

Atopic diseases include eczema, allergic rhinitis, asthma, and food allergy. These are closely linked to allergies against airborne particles, such as pollen, dust, mold, or foods such as peanut, milk, soy, shellfish, or wheat.

The European Academy of Allergy and Clinical Immunology predicts that by 2025, half of the entire EU population will have allergies. This is up 20% since 2015.

A survey from 2020 estimated that approximately 100 million (30%) Americans have allergies today.

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What could be driving this increase in allergies?

Research suggests factors related to with the microbiome could play a part in this rise of allergies and atopic disease, for example, over-use of broad-spectrum antibiotics, increasing numbers of C-sections etc.

Other probable factors could include children spending less time playing outdoors, with less exposure to a diversity of bacteria, less physical activity and a higher body mass index.

Other factors could include changes in the home including more carpeting and furnishing, increased temperature, less ventilation indoors, with more exposure to indoor allergens.

But this picture is not the same for traditional farm lifestyle communities in Europe and North America.

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Traditional farming communities have lower rates of allergies

Previous research has found that those living traditional farm lifestyles in Europe, and the Amish or old order Mennonites in North America, with large families and exposure to farm animals, have lower rates of allergies and atopic diseases compared to those living modern urban lifestyles.

According to Dr Kirsi Järvinen-Seppo is associate professor in the Division of Pediatric Allergy and Immunology and the Center for Food Allergy of the University of Rochester in the USA.

“Such a lifestyle was once common around the world, but today is largely restricted in Western countries to some religious communities, such as the Amish or old order Mennonites. Allergies are far less common among them, which suggests that their traditional lifestyle may be a protective factor against the development of atopic diseases.”

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The new study:

The new study by Dr Kirsi Järvinen-Seppo and colleagues published in Frontiers in Immunology compared the components of breast milk collected between 2 weeks and 6 months from 2 different communities.

  • 52 mothers from the community of old order Mennonites of Penn Yan, New York
  • 29 mothers living a modern urban lifestyle in the nearby city of Rochester.

Researchers measured IgA antibodies, human milk oligosaccharides, cytokines, metabolites and also sequenced the bacteria in the milk.

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The Results:

Old order Mennonite mothers self-reported they had more contact with farm animals, dogs, barns and unpasteurized farm milks.

The Mennonite mothers reported a lower rate of atopic diseases for themselves and their babies.

This ‘farm-life effect’ which seems to protect against the development of allergies is partly passed on to babies via breast milk.

The study found that the milk produced by Mennonite mothers had:

  • Higher concentrations of IgA1 and IgA2 antibodies against peanut, egg ovalbumin, dust mites and also the bacterium Streptococcus equii, a pathogen found in horses.
  • Higher levels of certain cytokines, certain human milk oligosaccharides and fatty acid metabolites.
  • The milk also contained beneficial microbes, such as bacteria from the families Prevotellaceae, Veillonellaceae, and Micrococcaceae.

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What does this mean?

According to Dr Juilee Thakar, an associate professor at the Department of Microbiology and Immunology and the Department of Biostatistics of the University of Rochester, and a co-author of the study.

“Here we show that breast milk from moms in a community of old order Mennonites contains higher concentrations of IgA antibodies against food allergens, dust mites, and bacteria associated with farm animals, as well as higher levels of certain cytokines, signaling proteins important for regulating the immune system".

According to Dr Kirsi Järvinen-Seppo is associate professor in the Division of Pediatric Allergy and Immunology and the Center for Food Allergy of the University of Rochester in the USA.

“Our results indicate that women on such traditional farms generate immunity through long-term exposure to farm animals and foods such as unpasteurized farm milk and eggs. The results also suggest that babies can acquire some protection against allergic diseases through their mother’s milk”

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Why is this important?

According to Dr Seppo, "because it can help explain why atopic diseases are currently exploding in Western populations, and perhaps one day these insights may help to prevent or mitigate these diseases.”


My take-home message:

I am not suggesting that we all need to rush out and swap our modern city lives with a traditional farming Mennonite lifestyle.

But I do think we need to take onboard that modern urban living including how we give birth and feed our babies (with C-section and formula-feeding), this is likely to be contributing to the sky-rocketing of allergies and atopic diseases.

If, as a society, we want to reduce allergies, perhaps we need to take inspiration from traditional farming communities.

And we need to increase the value, respect and funding to ensure all mothers are supported to exclusively breastfeed when possible, so they can reach their own breastfeeding goals.

What do you think?

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Article and Scientific references:

Article in Medicalxpress: https://medicalxpress.com/news/2021-10-breast-menn...

Press release: Women from traditional farming communities, such as old order Mennonites, may pass protection against atopic diseases on to their infants through their milk https://www.eurekalert.org/news-releases/930199

European Academy of Allergy and Clinical Immunology (EAACI) Advocacy Manifesto
Tackling the Allergy Crisis in Europe - Concerted Policy Action Needed file:///C:/Users/tonih/AppData/Local/Temp/EAACI_Advocacy_Manifesto.pdf

Seppo AE, Choudhury R, Pizzarello C, Palli R, Fridy S, Rajani PS, Stern J, Martina C, Yonemitsu C, Bode L, Bu K, Tamburini S, Piras E, Wallach DS, Allen M, Looney RJ, Clemente JC, Thakar J and Järvinen KM (2021) Traditional Farming Lifestyle in Old Older Mennonites Modulates Human Milk Composition. Front. Immunol. 12:741513. doi: 10.3389/fimmu.2021.741513 Traditional farming lifestyle in Old Older Mennonites modulates human milk composition, Frontiers in Immunology (2021). DOI: 10.3389/fimmu.2021.741513


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