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Nothing to Sneeze At: New theories explored to stem the growth of food allergies, intolerance in children

Nothing to Sneeze At: New theories explored to stem the growth of food allergies, intolerance in children

(The following article first appeared in the March 2018 issue of Get Healthy, a publication of The Northwest Indiana Times. Online version)

Every morning while I got ready for school, mom would pack my lunch. Sometimes my main course was a salami, yellow mustard and sweet pepper sandwich on white Wonder bread. Other days, it was peanut butter, jelly and potato chips—only I added the chips in at lunchtime so they didn’t get soggy and because my sandwich style grossed out my mom. There was no way she would smash chips on a sandwich for her daughter then send her to school.

Interestingly enough, there was never a problem with the peanut butter causing a life-threatening situation for any other students. Most of my friends brought sandwiches made on Wonder bread too. We all managed to grow up unscathed. And this was in the 1960’s!         

So why is it that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of children with food allergies increased 50% between 1997 and 2011?

The main theory will probably surprise you, and here’s a clue: Think back to “War of the Worlds.” (I’ll share the answer at the end if you are stuck.) The most accepted theory is known as the “Hygiene Hypothesis.” Basically, we need to let kids play in the dirt. Infants need a certain level of microbe (bacteria, virus, mold, germ, etc.) exposure in order to regulate and strengthen their developing immune systems. Our obsession to kill every last germ with antibacterial products has come with higher rates of allergy, autoimmune disease, and asthma. We’ve lost the balance. Children who were raised on farms, have numerous siblings, had pets or spent early years in daycare, have lower rates of asthma and allergy.

Another theory is that parents have been told to wait until after a baby’s first birthday to introduce foods that could cause a reaction. Because of this, when the child tries a new food later in life, the immune system is primed and ready to get rid of anything that seems out of line. Eat a peanut, and boom! What experts have now determined is that these foods should be introduced before the first birthday, since that’s when the immune system learns the difference between safe and dangerous.

What is the difference between a food allergy and food intolerance? A food allergy occurs when the body’s immune system recognizes a certain food as harmful and reacts by causing symptoms. Eating that food results in reproducible symptoms (an allergic reaction) that occur immediately (within a few hours) and with every exposure. Foods that cause allergic reactions are allergens. Typical symptoms include: hives, swelling, itching, difficulty breathing and/or swallowing, vomiting, low blood pressure (which can cause the person to pass out), anaphylaxis, and death.

The most common foods that account for over 90% of allergic reactions are: cow’s milk, eggs, soy, wheat, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, and shellfish.

Food intolerances occur when the gastrointestinal (GI) tract doesn’t respond well to a specific food or an ingredient used to prepare the food. These responses are not always immediate nor are they always reproducible. Symptoms may include gas, bloating, heartburn, vomiting, constipation, diarrhea, congestion and headache. Intolerances may occur if a specific enzyme is missing to help digest a food, such as with lactose intolerance. Other common food intolerances include wheat/gluten, food additives (found in processed foods), corn, soy, and monosodium glutamate or MSG.

Food allergies affect between 5 to 8% of all kids. If there is no family history of allergies, the odds are good the kids will escape them. Intolerances are more prevalent than food allergies and may be difficult to determine since they are unique to the individual. Based on this information, could it be that a child believes an allergy exists, when it may actually be food intolerance? This can be tricky!

Based on all these theories, some ideas that may help:

  • Stop trying to be so anti-bacteria.
  • Breastfeed through the first year.
  • Don’t introduce solid foods before baby is 17 weeks old.
  • Introduce a variety of foods before your child turns 1.
  • Limit packaged and processed foods.
  • Avoid using any lotion or topical product on baby’s inflamed skin containing peanut oil if there is a family history of peanut allergy.

Oh, and in “War of the Worlds,” the aliens died from a common human germ since they had never been exposed to it to develop immunity. They probably died from the common cold. To an alien who grew up in an entirely different and perhaps germ-free environment, there is nothing common about an Earthly cold.

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