Today, one in eleven children struggles with asthma, and one in four is affected by allergies. The incidence of allergy has increased significantly over the past two decades, and allergy to peanuts has more than doubled from 1997 to 2002. Approximately 30 million children—more than one-third of our kids—are affected by one of these four new childhood epidemics. This is not something we can just accept.
The official statistic holds that allergies affect some 7 million Americans, including about 6 percent of children below the age of three. That information comes courtesy of U.S. Food and Drug Administration Deputy Commissioner Lester M. Crawford, J., D.V.M., Ph.D., speaking before the Consumer Federation of America on April 22, 2002. But that data is now almost 10 years old.
Since then, the only update we’ve had is from the Centers for Disease Control and a report issued in 2008 that said that there has been a 265 percent increase in the rate of hospitalizations related to food allergic reactions.
Why the increase in allergies?
An allergy is basically an overreaction by your immune system to a protein that it perceives as a threat—for example, the proteins in particular types of food, the dust mite protein, or pollen. For people without allergies, these proteins are harmless. But if you’ve got an allergy, your immune system sees these proteins as dangerous invaders.
To drive the invader out, your immune system mobilizes all its resources: mucous, to flush out the intruder; vomiting, to force it out; diarrhea, to expel it quickly. Such conditions may make you feel sick, but they’re actually evidence of your body’s attempts to get well.
A key aspect of the immune response is known as inflammation, characterized by one or more of four classic symptoms: redness, heat, swelling and pain.
Inflammation doesn’t occur only in allergic reactions; it flares up whenever your body feels threatened, in response to a bruise, cut, bacteria or virus as well as to otherwise harmless pollen, dust or food. Scientists now believe that much of our immune system is found in our digestive tracts, where many of these inflammatory reactions occur in the form of stomachaches, cramping, nausea, bloating and vomiting.
Ironically, the immune system’s inflammatory reaction—meant to heal and protect the body—often causes more problems than the initial “invader” in the cases when allergic reactions become life-threatening.
Common symptoms of food allergy
- Rash or hives
- Stomach pain
- Itchy skin
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- Swelling of the airways to the lungs
The connection to immunity
At first glance, the distinction between “allergies” and “sensitivity” may seem like a meaningless word game. But understanding the relationship between these two conditions is crucial to grasping the true nature of the allergy epidemic—and to seeing how even the supposedly healthy foods in our kitchens may be harmful to our health.
As we’ve seen, allergies are an overreaction of our immune system, a kind of exaggerated response to a perceived danger. When a child comes in contact with these proteins (peanut, egg, wheat, etc.) her immune system “recognizes” the protein as dangerous, just as it would have seen the danger in the bacterium that causes pneumonia or the virus that causes mumps. In response, her immune system creates special “fighter” proteins called antibodies designed to identify and neutralize the “invader.”
These fighter proteins are known as immunoglobulin E, or IgE for short. When they’re released into the bloodstream, their purpose is to “seek and destroy” the invader, which they do by creating one or more of the classic food allergy symptoms, such as the hives, or the diarrhea with which other children respond, or, in more extreme cases, the anaphylactic shock that can kill a child within minutes.
The classic IgE response occurs within minutes or even seconds, because IgE proteins are some of the most aggressive antibodies we know. That immediate IgE response is the defining characteristic of an allergic reaction.
Food sensitivities start out in a similar way. If a “sensitive” child is exposed to a protein that his system perceives as a threat, he’ll manufacture another type of fighter protein, known as Immunglobulin G, or IgG. Although IgE and IgG antibodies play similar roles, they produce somewhat different—though often overlapping—symptoms.
A crucial difference between the two, though, is their reaction time. The less aggressive IgG antibodies typically produce a delayed response that might not appear for hours or even days after the child has consumed the offending food.
So even though food sensitivities and food allergies both produce painful, inflammatory and potentially dangerous responses, this delayed reaction time has led many doctors to give food sensitivities second-class status. Partly, that’s because they don’t present an immediate and obvious threat to children’s lives: only the IgE proteins trigger anaphylactic shock, for example, and in that sense, only the IgE proteins can kill (though the IgG reaction can have serious long-term consequences).
Process of elimination
I also think that traditional doctors tend to downplay the importance of nutrition, frequently dismissing the idea that such symptoms as earache, eczema, crankiness, brain fog and sleep problems might be related to a child’s diet.
However, an article in The Lancet, Britain’s most respected medical journal, casts another light on the subject. The article referred to doctors who use elimination diets—diets that begin with a very limited, “safe” array of food choices and then add potentially problematic foods back into the diet, one by one.
The reason to do an elimination diet is to identify which foods in your diet might be triggering symptoms like skin rashes, fatigue or stomach ache. Often, some foods affect us without our realizing it and we live with the symptoms, taking medicine to alleviate the suffering. But if you eliminate these foods from your diet, you may find that your symptoms disappear. What becomes even more interesting is that when you reintroduce the offending food, you may suddenly suffer drastic symptoms, which make it clear that the food was indeed triggering one or more problems.
An elimination diet can sometimes reveal with dramatic speed that a particular food you’ve always believed was harmless is actually causing such chronic symptoms as headache, digestive problems and even more serious complaints. Masked by your daily diet and by the slowness of the food-sensitivity reaction, the offending food does its dirty work without ever realizing that it is the culprit behind your—or your child’s—disorders.