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Why is Everybody Suddenly Allergic to Food?

by Heather Pratt, MNT  

Nothing Left to Eat That is Allergy Free 

You may have noticed some changes in the way we eat these days: seems like everyone is sensitive to some food previously considered harmless. Gluten-free is so mainstream now that big names like Betty Crocker and Olive Garden now offer gluten-free options; you can buy dairy-free milk, cheese, ice cream, and yogurt; and many schools and airplanes don’t even allow peanuts on the premises. You might be wondering, “Why can’t anyone just eat anymore?”

First, let me say that people aren’t just making it up (a common misperception). Although there is a certain amount of faddish adherence to some diets, there is little doubt that food allergies are on the rise. The rate of peanut allergies in American children under 18 years of age tripled between 1997 and 2008. Since the 1950s we’ve seen the prevalence of Celiac disease double about every 20 years. Food allergies in general, which include allergies to egg, soy, milk and fish in addition to gluten and nuts, have risen 50% in American children since 1997.  It is important to note that these increases are not due to better diagnostic technology, but are actual increases in prevalence. It should also be noted that these rates only reflect true allergies and do not include rates of sensitivity. In general an allergy is defined as a response triggered by one specific type of immune antibody (Immunoglobulin E, or IgE), while a sensitivity is a negative reaction often triggered by other types of immune antibodies. (Immunoglobulin G, or IgG, is a common one.) Rates of food sensitivities are also increasing. So what gives? 

Well, the truth is, we really don’t know, but one theory, the hygiene hypothesis, is pretty well accepted among most health professionals and those who study these sorts of things. This theory postulates that as we have improved sanitation, we have inadvertently increased our rates of allergy, asthma and autoimmune disease. While better sanitation is good for eliminating infectious diseases, it doesn’t allow the gut immune system, which directs the development of the entire immune system, the kind of exposure to antigens and bacteria it needs, resulting in a skewed immune response. This leaves a person more prone to developing allergic and autoimmune diseases.  Basically, we are too concerned with “clean” and our immune systems are paying the price.

Once the immune system is skewed this way, we then worsen the problem with our modern food supply and lifestyle. Things like chemicals in our foods, chronic antibiotic use, and even stress are all known to negatively impact the health of our guts, which is home to the majority of the immune system. So we start with an altered immune system because we are too clean, and then we constantly bombard our gut immune system with chemicals and irritants that challenge our skewed immune systems. How this expresses in each person probably has a lot to do with genetics, which explains why some people will develop Celiac disease, some will go into anaphylactic shock at the mere exposure to a peanut, some will break out in hives if they drink milk and some will have none of these food allergies but might experience hay fever or develop an autoimmune disease like lupus or rheumatoid arthritis.

To combat this issue we can of course help to create more robust immune systems in our children by breast feeding them, letting them play in the dirt and get “kissed” by the dog and by using antibiotics judiciously. But what about those of us who are grown? Unfortunately some of the damage has been done, but we can help to minimize the damage and to support our immune systems by first removing foods that are known triggers (nuts, dairy, gluten, fish, eggs, soy, and corn being the most common). This allows the immune system a chance to calm down. In general, a diet high in real foods like fruits, vegetables, grass-fed meats, pastured poultry, virgin olive oil, unrefined coconut oil, and avocados is a good place to start. Avoid sugars, products made from flour and damaged industrial oils like soy, corn, cottonseed and sunflower or partially- or fully-hydrogenated oils.  It is also important to add a good probiotic (to help populate the gut with good bacteria) and to modulate inflammation in general with things like omega-3 fatty acids and turmeric. A holistically minded doctor or practitioner can also help to determine if you have any gut damage and can guide you through healing it. 

And for those of you who do suffer from food allergies and sensitivities, there is one positive side to all this - there are now more and better choices, which are readily available!

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   Heather Pratt, MNT

Heather Pratt is a natural born foodie with a passion for the medicinal effects of food. After several years in a field that just didn't 'feed' her she went back to school to become a Master Nutrition Therapist. She works part time for Natural Grocers by Vitamin Cottage as a Nutrition Writer and regular contributor to the Natural Grocers Health Hotline Magazine, where she helps to educate staff and customers alike on how to use food and supplements to enhance their health. Uniting good food with good health is her passion and she loves to share it with others.