By Dr. Paul Ehrlich
I have been lecturing recently on the role of infant diet and the beginning of the allergic march, which typically goes from atopic dermatitis (eczema), to nasal allergies, to asthma. Without getting into the biology of human breast milk and formulas derived from cow’s milk for the moment, I’ll just say that current research indicates that we must be concerned about allergies from the first day of life. Proteins in food are the first “foreign” substances that enter a child’s body. As we say in the book, “The word allergy comes from the Greek allos, which literally means ‘altered state.’ The body has the ability to recognize something foreign.”
Infants in a hospital nursery are unlikely to encounter pollens, dust mites, or pet dander (and regardless, those allergies are slow to develop), but they have to eat. The evidence shows that breast milk is more likely to help the child build a healthy immune system than formula. However, it is not a no-allergy guarantee.
A Hasidic mother brought her three-month-old breast-fed baby to my office after the recent two-week Passover hiatus. The baby, who had terrible eczema prior to the holiday, had achieved remarkable relief during the layoff. This wasn’t a miracle. Ashkenasic (Northern European) Jews, including Hasidim, refrain from eating legumes, including peanuts during the holiday. As one website explains: “In the old days, legumes, sugar etc. used to be packed in sacks that contained flour. Ashkenazim decided not to eat these items on Pesach out of the concern that some flour may have been mixed in which might leaven after coming into contact with water.” (Food-allergy parents who worry about cross-contamination in modern food processing take note.) This child has a conscientious mother, but unfortunately, her love of peanuts and other legumes has affected her milk. She now faces the challenge of finding another source of inexpensive, high-quality, and tasty protein. However, as I have previously written, the very fact that Orthodox diets are already subject to many rules should make it easier to make the change.