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Are Allergies Becoming More Common?

Are Allergies Becoming More Common?

A Healthnotes Newswire Opinion

Healthnotes Newswire (August 18, 2005)—Results of a national survey suggest that the prevalence of allergies has been increasing considerably, and that more than half of the US population is now allergic to at least one common allergen. The findings, published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology (2005;116:377–83), are consistent with reports from other countries such as Japan, England, and Denmark that have also shown an increase in the prevalence of allergies.

Between 1988 and 1994, skin tests for ten common allergens (such as dust mites, ragweed, cockroach, grass, and peanuts) were performed on 10,508 people participating in the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES III). Of those who were studied, 54.3% had a positive test for one or more allergens. The frequency of positive reactions ranged from a low of 8.6% for peanuts to a high of 27.5% for dust mites. Six of the ten allergens examined were also tested in the Second National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES II) between 1976 and 1980. Compared with NHANES II, the frequencies of positive skin tests were 2.1 to 5.5 times higher in NHANES III. Although the testing methods for allergies differed somewhat in the two surveys, the authors of the new study concluded that their results were most likely due to a true increase in allergy prevalence.

There are a number of ways in which our modern lifestyle might be promoting the development of allergies:

First, we are being exposed to thousands of different environmental pollutants, including pesticides and other chemicals used in agriculture, industrial waste, air pollutants, and various chemicals added to our food supply as preservatives, coloring agents, and stabilizers. Some of these chemicals have adverse effects on the immune system and some are known allergens. Continual exposure to this multitude of chemicals might overwhelm our immune systems, potentially making us more susceptible to becoming allergic.

Second, feeding babies formulas instead of breast milk has been shown in some studies to lead to a higher prevalence of allergies later in life.

Third, many modern processed foods are made from the same small list of ingredients, such as wheat, dairy products, soy protein, eggs, sugar, and corn products. Some scientists believe that eating the same foods repeatedly puts stress on the immune system and might increase the risk of developing allergies.

Fourth, processed-food manufacturers are now adding high-fructose corn syrup to many baked goods. Fructose is a highly reactive molecule which, when heated in the presence of protein, can cause changes in the chemical structure of the protein. These altered proteins are often more allergenic than their unaltered counterparts, and repeatedly eating modified proteins might somehow make people more allergic in general.

Although the relationship between some of these factors and the risk of developing allergies remains speculative, the increase in the prevalence of allergies seems to be real, and should spur us to investigate our modern lifestyle more fully in order to better understand which aspects are contributing to allergy development.

An expert in nutritional therapies, Chief Medical Editor Alan R. Gaby is a former professor at Bastyr University of Natural Health Sciences, where he served as the Endowed Professor of Nutrition. He is past-president of the American Holistic Medical Association and gave expert testimony to the White House Commission on Complementary and Alternative Medicine on the cost-effectiveness of nutritional supplements. Dr. Gaby has conducted nutritional seminars for physicians and has collected over 30,000 scientific papers related to the field of nutritional and natural medicine. In addition to editing and contributing to The Natural Pharmacy (Three Rivers Press, 1999), and the A–Z Guide to Drug-Herb-Vitamin Interactions (Three Rivers Press, 1999), Dr. Gaby has authored Preventing and Reversing Osteoporosis (Prima Lifestyles, 1995) and B6: The Natural Healer (Keats, 1987) and coauthored The Patient's Book of Natural Healing (Prima, 1999).

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