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A new large-scale UK study has found that taking fish oil supplements and probiotics while pregnant and breastfeeding can reduce the risk of egg allergy and eczema in children.

Carried out by researchers at Imperial College London, the study is one of the largest ever research reports on how a pregnant woman’s diet affects her baby’s allergy and eczema risk, with the team assessing over 400 studies involving 1.5 million people.

The team found that when pregnant women took a daily fish oil supplement, containing a standard dose of omega-3 fatty acids, from 20 weeks pregnant and during the first three to four months of breastfeeding, the risk of their child developing an egg allergy was reduced by 30%.

In addition, taking a daily probiotic supplement from 36-38 weeks pregnant, and during the first three to six months of breastfeeding, reduced the risk of a child developing eczema by 22%.

Taking fish oil supplements during pregnancy also appeared to reduce a child’s risk of peanut allergy by 38%. However, researchers cautioned that this finding was based on only two studies and therefore the results are not as reliable as those found for egg allergy and eczema.

There was no evidence to suggest that other dietary factors such as fruit, vegetable or vitamin intake, or avoiding potentially allergenic foods such as nuts, dairy and eggs during pregnancy made any difference to the risk of either allergies or eczema.

In addition, another fatty acid, omega-6, was not found to have any effect on allergy risk.

Although it is still not known exactly what causes allergies and eczema, the study’s lead researcher Dr Robert Boyle noted that previous research suggests fish oils may help reduce the risk of allergies by “dampening down” the immune system and preventing it from over-reacting.

Studies that have looked at probiotics, which contain live bacteria that may influence the natural balance of  bacteria in the gut, have found that an imbalance in this naturally-occurring bacteria may increase allergy risk.

Allergies are also more common in those who already suffer from eczema, although further research is needed to understand better the causes of the two conditions and how they can be prevented.

The study also revealed some evidence for links between longer duration of breastfeeding and a reduced risk of eczema, and breastfeeding was also linked with a lower risk of type one diabetes.

The Food Standards Agency, who also commissioned the study, advises that women should continue to follow the current Government advice to exclusively breastfeed for around the first six months of age and continue breastfeeding thereafter. Pregnant women should also continue to follow government dietary and supplement advice.

The findings can be found published online in the journal PLOS Medicine. – AFP Relaxnews

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