Food allergies are serious, potentially life-threatening conditions that have been on the rise over the past two decades. Rates among children have risen by over 50% since 1997, with 1 in every 13 children in the United States currently affected. Food allergies occur when the immune system overreacts to a harmless food protein. This allergen (any substance that triggers an allergic reaction) triggers the production of antibodies that cause an array of allergic symptoms ranging from mild (diarrhea, dry cough, sneezing) to severe (trouble swallowing, turning blue, anaphylaxis). Some reactions are so severe that death is a real possibility.
Why have food sensitivities increased?
Most of the reasons put forth to explain the current uptick in food sensitivities revolve around the hygiene hypothesis. This hypothesis states that a lack of early childhood exposure to infectious agents, symbiotic microorganisms (like gut flora or probiotics), and parasites increases susceptibility to allergic diseases by suppressing the natural development of the immune system and altering the intestinal microbiota. In other words, our obsession with cleanliness and anti-bacterial everything has limited the bacterial exposure needed to build tolerance and prevent allergic disease.
Modern lifestyle choices have reduced our exposure to these microbial agents. Increased antibiotic use and increased antibiotic residues in meats, eggs, and dairy have disruptive effects on our gut flora and may increase the risk of developing food allergies. The Standard American Diet (appropriately referred to as the SAD) has also been linked to compromised immunity and increased risk for food allergies. The SAD refers to one high in saturated and hydrogenated fats, high in processed foods, and low in fiber, complex carbohydrates, and plant-based foods. Microbial exposure is also more limited by spending significantly more time indoors. Being outdoors exposes the body to a large variety of microbes that can help to strengthen immune functions.
Can we do anything to eliminate or reduce food allergies?
Unfortunately, there are currently no cures for food allergies. The only guaranteed solution for life-threatening allergies is to completely remove allergens from the diet. For non-threatening food allergies and food intolerances, there are a few ideas to consider. An elimination diet is a good place to start. Cow’s milk, eggs, wheat, soy, peanuts, tree nuts, shellfish, and fish account for over 90% of all food allergies. If you want to try eliminating foods from your diet to test allergic reactions, start with these foods. You could also try adding some foods that are least likely to cause allergic reactions to your diet, or replacing allergenic foods with safer alternatives. Try swapping coconut milk for cow’s milk or almond butter for peanut butter. Try adding more nutrient-rich seeds and leafy green vegetables to your diet to counteract the nutrient-deficient SAD foods you may be ingesting.
Probiotics are the most promising new option for preventing food allergies, reducing food allergy symptoms, and in some cases, eliminating them entirely. One recent study demonstrated that a bacterial population of Clostridia was able to protect against food allergy sensitization by preventing allergens from entering the blood stream. Other studies have shown that supplementation with L. rhamnosus can reverse sensitization to cow’s milk in infants with cow’s milk allergies. Probiotics are able to affect food allergies by providing the gut with bacteria that interact with the immune system to promote tolerance of foods. Probiotics fill the gut with good bacteria and crowd out pathogenic bacteria that may be causing intestinal inflammation. They also reduce intestinal permeability, making it more difficult for allergens to enter the bloodstream and cause sensitization. If you’re looking for something with the potential to effect more drastic change for your allergy symptoms, probiotics could be your best bet.
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