Why Are So Many People Suffering from Food Allergies Today?
Five years ago, I ended up with a mysterious illness. Effectively, my immune system took a roller coaster ride and ended up going completely off the rails. My body never recovered.
Following this incident, I found myself incredibly sensitive to food and the environment around me. Gluten, dairy, canola oil, soy all became off limits. I was not allergic per se. I just felt awful every time I time I came across these ingredients.
Interestingly, over 20% of the American public today say they have a food allergy today. Doctors, however, will tell you that less than half of these people are truly allergic.
Are the doctors wrong? Not likely. But those who have food sensitivities are not necessarily wrong either.
Having a food sensitivity can affect people even if their tests come back negative. This is not unlike how concussion patients can be plagued with a bevvy of symptoms despite having seemingly normal MRIs.
For my part, I never had any issues with food until I got sick. But today, my battle with food is a constant in my life.
Unfortunately, I am not alone. Because today a growing number of people in the world are suffering from food, seasonal and environmental allergies and sensitivities.
In the US, hospital visits for food allergy increased threefold from 1993 to 2006. Between 2013 and 2019, England saw a 72% rise in the number of hospital admissions for children caused by anaphylaxis, from 1,015 admissions to 1,746.
- Dr. Alexandra Santos, BBC Article
Clearly, this is a trend that is moving in the wrong direction.
But why have things gotten so bad? Where did we go wrong? And what is it that is causing so many people to react to the food and to the environment that we find ourselves in today.
What Has Gone Wrong
Allergies develop when your immune system starts to fight substances or allergens that most people find completely harmless. Today, over 90% of food allergies are centered around milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, soy, fish (including shell fish) and wheat.
According to Graham Rook, emeritus professor of medical microbiology at University College London,
“The rise of allergies we see is a part of a more generalized phenomenon of a failure of the control mechanisms of the immune system.”
Understandably, genetics has a big role to play when it comes to our allergies. In fact, at least 80% of the risk of getting allergies is attributed to our genes.
But the remaining 20% has a lot to do with how we live our lives.
Researchers have speculated that an excessive reliance on anti-bacterial products and medicines, a poor diet as well as stress all have a role to play how our bodies, and more specifically our immune systems, react to allergens.
Our Sterilized World Just Might Be Making Us Sicker
In 1928, Alexander Fleming gave the world penicillin. This drug revolutionized our ability to treat and kill bacterial infections. As a child, I can’t remember ever being given penicillin. In fact, back in the 70s and 80s, it was rarely administered.
Today, penicillin is given out like candy. The CDC has reported that each year roughly 30% of the anti-biotics prescribed in the United States are unnecessary. What’s more, this excess of close to 50 million prescriptions is putting us a more risk of developing allergic reactions, deadly diarrhea and antibiotic resistance.
Penicillin, it turns out, does a fantastic job of disrupting our delicate gastro-intestinal eco-system of microbes by killing the good bacteria along with the bad. Apparently so does aspirin. What’s more, anti-bacterial cleaning products like bleach further wipe away the germs and bacteria we once commonly found in our lives.
According to Dr Leigh Vinocur of the American College of Emergency Physicians ,our obsession to rid the world of bacteria has made us more susceptible to allergies.
This is because in the past, our immune systems had a variety of pathogens and bacteria to fight off which helped train our immune systems to better recognize and tackle real threats versus passive and harmless ones.
But today, because we have done such a phenomenal job of wiping out bacteria and microbes, our immune systems are now sitting idle and are more apt to attack harmless substances like food.
This phenomenon is often dubbed the “hygiene hypothesis.” What’s more, studies have found that people in cities versus rural areas and in developed nations versus developing nations are often less exposed to germs and bacteria and therefore more susceptible to allergies, making this hypothesis burgeon on a reality.
Exposure to pets also seems to be a factor. Researchers have found that children who have been exposed to all of the germs and bacteria that pets carry around at a young age, are less likely to develop allergies.
Our Diet Is a Not Helping
Another cause of allergies often has to do with what we eat.
Not only is our food laden with hormones and antibiotics, which kills the good bacteria in our gut, but it is also chock-a-block full of processed foods and sugar.
Processed foods and sugar can decrease the number of good bacteria in the gut and can increase your body’s inflammatory response. And if you continue to eat these foods over the long haul, you can trigger chronic inflammation. With chronic inflammation, your body will often start attacking things that are perfectly harmless, like food. And the rest, unfortunately, is history.
Another issue in our diets is a lack of fiber. Fiber is what the healthy bacteria in your gut feed on. A lack of fiber in your diet, means that your gut likely will not be able to sustain enough good bacteria. And an imbalance in your gut’s bacteria is a leading cause of leaky gut syndrome.
With leaky gut syndrome, your gut starts to leak bacteria and toxins into your bloodstream, leading to widespread inflammation.
Now, you might think that eliminating food is the best way to deal with a food sensitivities and leaky gut syndrome.
And this would be true if you were talking about sugars and processed food. It might not be the case, however, if you were referring to all the foods you are sensitive too.
Even with allergies, it has also been shown that introducing micro doses under supervision into the system can retrain the body to accept and eventually stop attacking these allergens.
Researchers have also found that what we give our children to eat early on in life can dramatically impact whether they get allergies. In fact, their work seems to indicate that avoiding giving kids common allergens like peanuts, may in fact be a mistake.
Amongst children who avoided eating peanuts, 17% developed a peanut allergy by the time they were age 5, whereas only 3% who had peanut introduced into their diet from the year they were born developed the allergy by age five.
- Gideon Lack from King’s College London called the Learning Early About Peanut Allergy (LEAP) study.
A Lack of Vitamin D and Stress Are Triggering Inflammation
Many researchers today are looking into whether a deficiency of vitamin D might be a factor in causing allergies. After all, vitamin D is what is used to regulate your immune system’s response.
In this respect, vitamin D is critical. Unfortunately, roughly 42% of the American population is vitamin D deficient today.
But inflammation typically comes from stressors on the body. Too much stress can put the body into a state of chronic inflammation. And under these circumstances, all the vitamin D in the world won’t solve the problem.
In order to truly reduce inflammation, we need to reduce stress.
Stress in and of itself, is not bad. Prolonged stress, however, can wreak havoc.
When we are stressed, anxious and afraid for prolonged periods of time, our bodies become resistant to the cortisol that our body produces and our immune system can become compromised. This often means that people are no longer able to fight off pathogens and viruses. As a result, they begin to attack allergens which are harmless, like food.
In the End
Whether you are suffering from food sensitivities or allergies, they can both wreak havoc on your life. And while genetics plays a big part in determining your lot in life, other factors also play a significant role in determining whether you will be afflicted with allergies.
Today, we are more stressed. Our diets are less than stellar. And we are now living in a world where we are far less tolerant of things that are not sterile and squeaky clean. All these factors have thrown our immune systems into disarray.
Thankfully there are steps we can take to reduce the load on our immune systems, like eliminating bleach and other anti-bacterial products, exposing our kids to dirt, animals and foods like nuts earlier on, eating more fiber and less sugar, taking vitamin D and reducing our stress levels. Allergies and sensitivities will undoubtedly prevail. But with more research and a little more awareness, we can hopefully reverse current trends and ultimately see the number of people suffering start to decline.
- BBC, Food allergies, why nut, dairy and food allergies are rising
- BBC, Why the world is becoming more allergic to food
- CNBC, Allergies are on the rise, and here are three reasons why
- AAAAI Org, Increasing rates of allergies and asthma
- Medical.net, What’s driving the recent rise in allergies
- Leaps.org, Why food allergies are surging
- Penn Medicine, What it means to be immunocompromised
- Harvard Health, What’s the deal with autoimmune disease
- Canton Mercy.org, 42% of Americans are vitamin D deficient
- Science Direct, Food allergies, past, present and future
© Courtney Burry 2021, All Rights Reserved