Based on my research, the rise in food allergies is likely due to a number of factors that are mostly the result of an increasingly wealthy, sophisticated, modern Western society. In other words, First World Problems. Researchers are trying to discover why food allergies are on the rise in developed countries worldwide, and to learn more about the impact of the disease in developing nations. The following are some theories as to why food allergies are on the rise.
People develop allergies based on both their genetics and their environment. Research shows that if your parents have allergies, you are more likely to develop allergies. Environmental factors include a wide variety of things. For example, scientists have found that a child who grows up on a farm is less likely to develop allergies. Such observations have led to one of the leading theories about the rise of allergies- the so-called Hygiene Theory which states that changes in our environment—things like cleaner water, fewer germs/microbes in our food and environments, and the use of antibiotics—have weakened our immune system, leading to more food allergies. Children grow up in environments that are simply too clean. According to the Hygiene Theory, the immune system can’t find anything harmful to attack, so it mistakes harmless food protein (or pollen, cat dander, etc.) for something invasive that needs to be attacked. Additionally in the modern world our diets tend to include processed foods, a lot of sugar, animal fat and calorie-dense foods, and less fruit and vegetables. Some researchers suggest that such processed foods are potentially contributing to the rise in allergies. There is yet another theory: Thanks to modern medicine, antibiotics have radically changed our lives and defeated many infections that previously killed large numbers of the population. However, unfortunately, we are a very “antibiotics-happy culture” here in North America. Doctors prescribe antibiotics (drugs that kill bacteria) for even viral infections indiscriminately. This practice has to stop if we want to be healthy as a species. There also have been attempts to extend the hygiene hypothesis to include vaccinations suggesting that vaccines contribute to the increase in allergic disease. In alternative medicine, vaccines are considered to be suppressive, and anything suppressive may have short and/or long-lasting consequences (such as immune system dysfunction, which is what is at the root of allergies). Therefore, I would highly suspect vaccines as a culprit in the rise we see in allergies in the modern world.
An infectious disease specialist made the point that “most kids in the U.S. receive two or three courses of antibiotics in infancy. Most of the treatments they receive are for viral infections, meaning, they’re getting a treatment that serves no purpose.” What they’re getting instead is the elimination of the friendly bacteria (i.e. probiotics) from their system (most specifically in their intestines) that could be keeping the allergenic substances at bay. And that’s just one of the problems that are associated with the overuse of antibiotics. Therefore, it’s not controversial to say that we need to be more judicious in our use of antibiotics.
Exposure to various toxic substances may be another reason behind the rise in allergies. These toxic substances take a toll on our immune system, and a weakened immune system can become dysfunctional and overreact, causing havoc in our system. Any substance that is not natural and is a human-made chemical can be toxic to our body. These chemicals can be found not only in our food supply, but also in the air we breathe, in the water we drink, in cooking wear (such as aluminum pots and pans) and other kitchen utensils and appliances, in our clothing, in furniture, in cosmetic products, etc. (Note that a large number of cosmetic products not only contain chemicals that tax our immune system but also come with ingredients derived from nuts and other potentially allergenic foods. Some researchers suspect that exposing the body to potential allergens through skin creams may cause the development of allergies in people at risk for allergies.)
According to Dr. Stephen Taylor, Professor and Co-Director of the University of Nebraska Food Allergy Research & Resource Program, another theory that has been pretty clearly demonstrated is the increase in prevalence of birth by caesarean section because a baby born by caesarean does not acquire his mother’s gastrointestinal bacteria during the birthing process. The immunities that the baby might acquire during the birthing process may be quite important in preventing the development of food allergies, so babies born via caesarean seem to be at higher risk.
Yet, one more theory suggests that low vitamin D levels could be linked to the rise in food allergies. I test my patients’ vitamin D levels at least once a year, and have found that by far the majority of my patients here in the Puget Sound area have extremely low vitamin D levels. I recommend that my patients supplement their diet with a high quality vitamin D. The dose depends on their blood levels.
Most people refer to allergists to get tested for allergies, be it food or environmental allergies. Allergists typically perform the infamous skin-prick test which is by far the most common allergy test. To perform this test, the patient gets pricked by a needle numerous times (one time for each item in question) either on her back or on her arms in order to decide what substances she reacts to. The test takes hours to perform, is very uncomfortable (especially for children who often cry through most of the test), and is extremely expensive. In my experience, the conventional skin-prick allergy test is unfortunately not as helpful for figuring out our food allergies as a blood test. Fortunately, however, a blood test is not only much more convenient (it only takes minutes to do, is painless compared to the numerous pricks one has to endure during a skin test), and it is also far less expensive. Additionally, with a blood test, we can even test for food sensitivities, not just the more serious food allergies. Note that, unlike food allergies which may cause more serious or even life-threatening reactions in our body, food sensitivities can definitely create or worsen numerous health problems. The following paragraph is a list of the most common symptoms I see in my patient population when they consume their allergenic foods as well as food sensitivities:
Dermatological symptoms and common skin conditions include itchiness, dry or oily skin, hives, eczema, acne, psoriasis, acute and chronic skin infections such as impetigo, etc. Gastrointestinal symptoms include acid reflux, ulcers, gas/bloating, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, constipation, hemorrhoids, trouble swallowing, swollen tongue, intestinal bleeding, etc. Respiratory symptoms may involve shortness of breath, wheezing, acute or chronic coughing, tightness of throat, hoarseness, etc. Rheumatological symptoms may be joint and muscle aches and pains, fibromyalgia, etc. Neurological symptoms include headaches, brain fog, cold extremities, dizziness or feeling faint, etc. Cardiovascular symptoms can involve palpitations, weak pulse, elevation in blood pressure, plaque buildup, pale or blue coloring of skin, cold extremities, shock or circulatory collapse, swelling/edema, etc. Endocrinological symptoms include cortisol and blood sugar fluctuations, female period abnormalities, etc. Genitourinary symptoms are bladder infections, vaginal symptoms such as yeast or bacterial overgrowth, interstitial cystitis, etc. And, last but not least, psychological symptoms can involve anxiety, depression, ADD/ADHD, panic, aggressive behavior, etc.
If you are interested in finding out about your, or your children’s, food allergies and/or food sensitivities, you can schedule a visit with your naturopath. A food allergy test takes less than five minutes to perform and yet can change the quality of your health for the rest of your life. Remember, you are what you eat! And, of course, you are what you digest, or, should I say, don’t digest, but that would be a different blog…