It turns out one way to protect babies from developing bad allergies in life is to give them breast milk from Mennonite mothers who grew up on farms. Yes, that’s for real: a new (peer reviewed!) study published in Frontiers in Immunology found that breast milk from Mennonite moms has a greater abundance in the type of antibodies and other immune systems components that protect babies from common allergies.
“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,” study coauthor Antti Seppo from the University of Rochester said in a statement. “These may protect infants against developing allergic diseases.”
What prompted the study? Allergy rates in Western societies have exploded in the early 20th century. One theory explaining this phenomenon argues that lately people have adopted cleaner and more sedentary lives that leave them less exposed to the outside world, which means the immune system is unable to prime itself to co-exist with a lot of foreign substances. A lot of immunity during infancy is passed down from mother to child via breast milk—so over several generations, that breast milk would contain fewer antibodies that tell the body certain airborne dust and certain foods are actually safe.
Mennonite mothers, on the other hand, live very traditional one-family farming lives with little modern technology. They are constantly exposed to pollen and animal dander, unpasteurized milk and other dairy products, and livestock. The research team compared the breast milk of 52 Mennonite women living in Western New York to 29 urban and suburban women living around the city of Rochester. Not only did Mennonite breast milk contain more allergy-associated antibodies, but it also contained a greater diversity of milk microbes that bolster the developing gut microbiota of babies.
The main takeaway here is that it might be good to get outside and touch some grass, at least for your future children's sake. It is not suggesting you go out and find some Mennonite breast milk.