Growing up, I only had one friend with a severe food allergy—peanuts. Over the last decade, my list of food-sensitive friends has grown to great lengths, whether the offender be soy, eggs, dairy or the increasingly infamous gluten. Rather than questioning the rise, I poured myself into gluten-free baking experiments for our wheat-free get-togethers.
Then I started to notice a shift in grocery store shelf space and health literature. Did you know food allergies are now considered a "hidden disability" under Section 504 of The Rehabilitation Act, according to the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights?
Apparently I wasn't the only one noticing a rise in food allergies. The entire United States of America was too. And on a civil rights level.
"A 2008 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that there was an 18 percent increase in food allergy between 1997 and 2007." About 3 million children younger than 18 had a food or digestive allergy in America in 2007, the CDC said.
And only eight foods account for 90 percent of all these reactions: milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, soy, wheat, fish and shellfish.
3 Reasons Why We're Suddenly Allergic to Everything
1. We were born in America.
Dr. Jonathan Silverberg, an allergist in the dermatology department at St. Luke’s – Roosevelt Hospital in New York, published a study last year that showed that "children born outside the United States had significantly lower odds of developing allergies than American-born children." He attributed the difference partly to the fact that children overseas are more likely to be exposed to diseases that build up protection against allergies.
Sanitation measures and vaccines in the West may have controlled infectious disease, but they decreased exposure to a variety of bacteria that may have opened the door to these other ailments. Click here for another intriguing study that compares gut bacteria in children living in an industrialized European nation versus those in a rural African village.
"Our developed lifestyles [here in America] have eliminated the natural variation in the types and quantity of germs our immune systems need for them to develop into a less allergic, better regulated state of being. On the left, we see that exposures to germs, "dirt" and certain types of infection are part of the natural development of our immune response. On the right, we see how some cultural choices can interrupt the course of the immune system, and allow immature responses to continue to dominate and promote allergic conditions. Therefore, many of the advances of modernization, such as good sanitation and eradicating parasitic (helmith) infections, may actually be fueling this epidemic of allergies.
2. We moved to America.
Foreign-born Americans develop increased risk of allergic disease with prolonged residence in the United States,” Dr. Silverberg said. His patients from overseas question him daily, asking, "I came here from the Caribbean or Mexico and I never had problems like this. My skin flares up here, but if I go back home, the problem is solved."
The study also concluded that "children born outside the United States have a lower prevalence of allergic disease that increases after residing in the United States for 1 decade."
Welcome to America! Where gel hand sanitizers run like water.
3. We eat like a typical American.
The Western diet is widely associated with an increase in allergies. And by "Western diet" I mean the SAD one—the Standard American Diet.
Repeated ingestion of limited types of foods creates intestinal hyperpermeability. When undigested food particulate matter leaks through gaps in the intestinal wall and enters the bloodstream, an allergic response mechanism goes into effect. When people are eating poor quality and toxic foods, sleeping too little, sitting too much, and having a plethora of unmanaged stress, this overload can create a "hyper-reactivity picture that renders them susceptible to sensitivity to just about anything they eat."
In the U.S., we process the heck out of our food. Even milk, once as pure and real a food as it gets, is now one of the most processed foods on the market. Commercial sellers homogenize it, pasteurize it, shoot additives into it to make it last longer on the shelf — you name it. Pasteurization can produce versions of a particular protein that are highly indigestible and highly allergenic. This is the primary reason that pasteurized dairy is so much more allergenic than raw dairy.
And I'm guessing we all know someone with a gluten problem. That gluten sensitivity in all its forms is on the rise can be attributed to three things:
- Hybridization efforts have increased the gluten content that gives wheat products the palatable qualities [read: doughy goodness] other grains cannot match. Our digestive tracts can't keep up.
- Testing since the 1980s has become increasingly sensitive, leading to the discovery of once undetectable problems.
- Screening of high-risk groups, such as first degree family members of celiac patients, has revealed even more cases.
Gluten is an inflammatory protein, by nature. So it's not the easiest thing to digest for any of us, whether you feel the symptoms or not. Again, it may not be the food itself that is sickening us, but our own modernization efforts to speed up the availability of food on our plates. According to the Weston A. Price Foundation, existing recipes from ancient traditional cultures indicate that all primitive peoples had developed very careful techniques to prepare their grains prior to eating them — soaking, sprouting and fermenting. This neutralizes the enzymes and makes the proteins easier to digest.
Can you picture Panera doing this every day? Talk about slowing down production. I miss the good ole days.
3 Ways to Fight Back
1. Eat probiotic-rich foods. You guys, I could write a love letter to probiotics, that's how deeply I feel about these guys. Cultured or fermented foods include yogurt and kefir, raw sauerkraut and kvass, traditionally pickled vegetables like kimchi or pickles, Kombucha, miso, raw apple cider vinegar, and unpasteurized soy sauce. If all of these options make you gag, I strongly encourage you to invest in a probiotic supplement. I recommend this one and this one. Probiotics support colon health, gut-related immune system function and overall immune system health, thereby lessening the sting of an allergic reaction and empowering your body to fight back.
And if dairy freaks you out because 'lactose intolerant' describes you oh too well, try raw dairy from a trusted source like Organic Pastures (if you're in California). Raw dairy is far less allergenic than pasteurized dairy. You may also be able to tolerate cultured dairy products — like yogurt and kefir — better than you think. Just start small. Read more here and here.
2. Heal your allergy-inflamed gut with bone broth. Yes, bone broth. Don't write it off as something only your great-great-great-grandmother would boil up in the kitchen. Read about its benefits here and here. Real bones fill the broth with collagen-rich gelatin, which soothes the digestive tract and calms inflammation caused by years or even decades of eating aggravating, allergenic foods. An excellent method of making bone broth can be found here. You know you want to try it.
3. Try an elimination diet. By removing the eight most commonly ingested allergenic foods listed above for two to four weeks and then reintroducing them one at a time, the culprits can be weeded out. Those foods to which you react mildly can be added back into your diet on a rotational basis. Foods to which you react strongly should be eliminated for 4 months and then reintroduced.
4. BONUS POINT — Eat a colorful and diverse array of REAL foods. Eating a plant-based, whole and real foods diet is nourishing to your digestive system, healing to the body, and will stop your body from being painfully sidetracked by all the allergy hangups our country is facing.
If given the time to heal itself up, your digestive tract can become the strong battlefield it was intended to be. "The intestinal tract contains cells with one of the fastest turnover rates of any in the body. GI cells replace themselves, by most accounts, approximately every three days, which means the intestinal tract can heal quickly when given the right nutrients."
Elimination diets are widely beneficial and have helped many solve their food allergy crisis. But they can be difficult to undertake alone. Please message me if you have questions or concerns about soaking, sprouting, fermentation, food allergies or tackling an elimination diet—I would love to take it on together!
Food Allergy Research & Education, Inc., 2013. 7925 Jones Branch Dr., Suite 1100, McLean, VA 22102. http://www.foodallergy.org/facts-and-stats
Steve James for NBC News; 'Allergies on the Rise in US Kids, Government Study Finds'; May 2, 2013. http://www.nbcnews.com/health/allergies-rise-us-kids-government-study-finds-6C9734851
Brian Smith for M Live; 'Food Allergies a 'Hidden Disability' in Schools for Increasing Number of Students. August 18, 2013. http://www.mlive.com/education/index.ssf/2013/08/food_allergies_a_silent_disabi.html
Elizabeth Landau for CNN; 'Why are food allergies on the rise?' August 3, 2010. http://www.cnn.com/2010/HEALTH/08/03/food.allergies.er.gut/index.html
Silverberg JI, Simpson EL, Durkin HG, Joks R. 'Prevalence of Allergic Disease in Foreign-Born American Children.' Department of Dermatology, Beth Israel Medical Center, New York, NY, USA. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23699865
'The Hygiene Hypothesis.' UCLA Health; http://fooddrugallergy.ucla.edu/body.cfm?id=40
Bauman, E. (2012). Foundations of Nutrition. Penngrove, CA: Bauman College.