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Are Food Allergies a Western Epidemic?
Over the last decade, the number of people reporting food allergies, especially in Western countries, has grown significantly. Allergies are now so prevalent that they’ve begun to seem trendy. While this increase is a concern, it also benefits from further investigation. Are allergies really on the rise?
What are Food Allergies?
It’s estimated that in 2019, over 26 million American adults have a food allergy. Food allergies are caused when the immune system mistakes harmless foods for disease-causing microorganisms. When this happens, the immune system shifts into a higher gear to battle the perceived threat, producing antibodies that can inflame your skin, sinuses, airways or digestive system.
There’s a difference, however, between an allergy and intolerance, and while both can be quite uncomfortable, only one is life-threatening.
Allergy Vs. Intolerance
A recent study showed that while 19% of adults surveyed believed they had an allergy, only 10.8% of those same adults actually did. In this, as in many cases, perceived allergies are more likely to be food intolerances.
Lactose or gluten intolerances are relatively common, but they're different from lactose allergies or celiac disease. If someone is lactose intolerant, they lack the lactase enzyme, which would allow them to break down the sugar in milk.
Many people believe that food allergies stem from the digestive system, but this is a common misconception. Instead, these allergies are a result of the immune system producing fewer molecules capable of correctly identifying harmless proteins like dairy or other popular triggers like peanuts or shellfish.
Popular Trigger Foods:
- Tree Nuts (Walnuts, Pecans, Almonds)
Although people who are lactose intolerant can drink a milkshake, they will likely feel ill afterwards and may experience stomach pain and symptoms like diarrhea or constipation. Someone who is allergic to milk, on the other hand, would suffer much more severe side effects from the same milkshake, such as throat closure or chest pain.
- Stomach pain
- Gas, cramps, or bloating
Irritability or nervousness
- Difficulty swallowing
- Throat tightening
- Chest tightening & pain
- Trouble breathing
- Rapid heart rate
- Fainting, dizziness, or feeling lightheaded
- Low blood pressure
The side effects of both food allergies and intolerances can be extremely uncomfortable. Food intolerances can be managed, though, by avoiding trigger foods and reaching for foods that will support your gut health. The probiotics in fermented foods like yogurt, kefir, kimchi, and kombucha can improve the composition of your digestive system.
In recent years, there’s been compelling evidence that children raised on farms develop far fewer allergies than those raised in cities. The prevailing theory suggests that children–and adults–who live in urban are rarely exposed to the same immune-system allergy triggers, or antigens, as those who live in rural areas.
This theory is supported in another study showing that only 7% of Amish children in Indiana have allergies, compared to 36% of American children overall. These studies appear to show that without early exposure to certain germs, immune systems can't adequately prepare to fight them.
The same allergy disparity between rural and urban residents is found when comparing people in the Western world to other countries around the globe. According to a study published in the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), British children show ten times the number of peanut allergies when compared to Israeli children. The study argues that this difference is likely due to Israeli children's comparatively early exposure to peanuts. There is a limited period when we are children during which the body is receptive to unfamiliar foods and won't have a negative reaction to them. It's important to capitalize on this period to avoid developing allergies.
Listen to Your Body
No matter how you approach allergies, it’s essential to rule out life-threatening ones by taking an allergy test. If you suffer from food intolerances, consult your doctor to determine whether it’s feasible to revert the intolerance by rebuilding your gut bacteria. In the meantime, listen to your body and eliminate trigger foods from your diet to start living a more comfortable and healthy life.
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