Let’s Talk Food: Surge in food allergies

There are more than 4 million American children and their families with allergies, and there has been a steadily increasing amount every year.

According to the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, in 1993, 3.4% of kids had food allergies. In 2011, the number jumped to 5.1% and by 2015, it was 5.7%.

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A recent insurance company assessment found the number of claims related to anaphylactic food reactions, which causes the airway to constrict, can kill, if not treated quickly, increased 377% nationwide between 2007 and 2016.

When I was growing up, we could bring peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to school because no one was allergic to them. But today, more children’s immune systems are overreacting to everyday foods.

This is a chain reaction that begins when food proteins bind to immune molecules in the body called IgE. Those IgE molecules then attach to other immune cells that spurt out histamine and other inflammatory chemicals, and can very quickly cause a life-threatening anaphylactic reaction that must be promptly treated with epinephrine from and EpiPen.

The American Academy of Pediatrics in 2000, in response to the increase in food allergies, recommended new moms breastfeed their babies for at least six months. These recommendations were guidelines and not based on any research, just opinion.

Then in 2015, British researchers noticed that Jewish children living in the United Kingdom were 10 times more likely to develop peanut allergy than Israeli children of similar ancestry. One theory was that in Israel, parents freely gave their babies peanut products, usually by 7 months old.

A study conducted showed it was better to eat peanuts early and often to decrease the likelihood of developing an allergy.

We are increasing the number of allergies for many reasons, and some of them are:

• “Hygiene Hypothesis”

This theory feels an infant’s immune system needs to be exposed to an assortment of germs to train itself not to overreact to harmless things such as food. With our wanting to sanitize everything because of COVID-19, our immune systems are getting confused about good and bad germs. A study showed that babies who live with pets have less likelihood to develop allergies and asthma, as well as children who are raised on a farm. We need to stop making children think all germs are bad and they must stay clean all the time … it’s OK for them to roll in the dirt.

• Early Skin Contact

Many scientists think infants can be “sensitized” to foods through the skin, priming them for allergies. In other words, when a child gets peanut butter on their face, like peanut butter from their brother’s hands, they might become sensitive to the proteins in that food. When that child eats their first peanut butter sandwich, the body recognizes the proteins as harmless. So the new recommendation is to introduce infants to a variety of foods at a young age.

Here’s an interesting theory on eczema: Some experts think eczema causes some food allergies rather than the other way around. Dr. Richard L. Wasserman, medical director of pediatric and immunology at Medical City Children’s Hospital in Dallas, advises parents to moisturize their babies’ skin from Day One to keep eczema and possible food allergies from developing in the first place.

• Vitamin D Deficiency

When an infant has a Vitamin D deficiency, they are three times more likely to develop peanut or egg allergies. But since studies are preliminary, consult your pediatrician before giving your child a supplement.

• Genetics

A recent study found there are five regions of DNA more highly mutated in kids with food allergies than those without them. “These anomalies — which are tied in part to immune regulation — account for about 24% of food allergy cases.”

•••

Allergies in adults are also on the rise.

When Dr. Jim Baker, CEO and chief medical officer of Food Allergy Research & Education, started practicing 35 years ago, “it was almost unheard of for an adult to develop a food allergy.”

Today, an estimated 15 million Americans have food allergies, and at least 15% of them developed those allergies as adults.

No one knows why there is an increase. Some think, like children, the “Hygiene Hypothesis” or too clean and sanitary environment and not being exposed to germs makes our immune systems overly sensitive. Another theory is that food is cultivated and processed differently than 30 years ago,

An allergy is your immune system fighting food as if it was an enemy, according to Vandana Sheth, RD, a dietitian specializing in food allergies.

Doing a food allergy test involves skin or blood tests, but those tests have up to 60% false-positive results. So the best way to find out what you are allergic to is to just eat a little and wait for a reaction.

Does your nose itch or stomach get upset?

Using this method of elimination, you can find out what foods to avoid. I have done this and now avoid wheat products.

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Two of my sons and I developed allergies as adults. Is it genetics?

Email Audrey Wilson at audreywilson808@gmail.com.

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