Preventing allergies before they start


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Allergies affect so many Americans, and some people suffer from so many different allergies that it limits the activities they can partake in and the foods they can consume. An article on CNN shows that food allergies are on the rise in the United States, and they looked into the reason why this might be happening.

 

Children under 18 years of age showed an increase of 18% in food allergies between 1997 and 2007.  According to the CDC, nearly 3 million children had a food allergy at this time. Doctors all over the country have noticed a rise in visits related to allergic reactions, and the National Academy of Sciences decided to look into why more children seem to be developing allergies. The small study took 15 children from Italy and 14 children from a small African village. They compared the children's gut flora, which is a bacteria that helps with body weight and nutrition (see the link for more info). Those who lived in Italy, which is considered to be a modernized and "industrialized" country like the United States, had less diverse flora in their stomachs than those who lived in Africa. Scientists say this is due to the fact that those in Africa thrive on more organic and varying diets than those in Europe, who eat more sugar, meat, and calories. This causes a lack of biodiversity in the stomach's bacteria, causing less exposure to bacteria that help to build immunities to diseases and allergies.  They believe that since the environment is "too clean," immune systems are fighting off foods rather than diseases, since there are fewer germs to be fought.

 

One proposed way of helping fight allergies is early exposure. Some doctors say that common allergens such as peanuts or shellfish should be given to children as early as possible. How an "early introduction" helps fight allergies was rather unclear; my hypothesis would be that the body will adapt to the foods at the same time it is adapting to so many other things in the world, therefore making it less likely to react negatively.

 

A study explained by The New York Times exhibits scientific evidence as to why this may be. The study showed that beginning babies on solid foods at the age of 4-6 months while still continuing breast feeding may decrease the baby's likelihood of developing allergies. Nearly 1200 babies' diets were monitored between birth and age two through a diary kept by their mothers. Eighty-two allergy-free babies were compared to forty-one who had a food allergy. The scientists took into account birth weight, length of pregnancy, and if the mother had any allergies, and removed the outliers from the study. They found that 17 weeks is the cutoff date for introducing solid foods. Babies who received solid foods before this point were more likely to be allergic. The biological mechanism behind introducing solids along with continuing breast-feeding is that breast milk helps support a healthy immune system. The difference between this study and the other is that this study says to wait longer, if possible, to introduce solid foods. I am curious to know if there is a cutoff age at which these scientists would believe it negatively impacts a child if solid foods are put off for so long. That is to say, if it is better to wait 17 weeks, is it also better to not wait more than 12 months of life before introducing solids? Will that make the immune system too sensitive once again?

 

The fact that allergies are not merely controlled by genetics is extremely interesting and something that should be pursued further. This data, when comparing the two studies, seems rather inconclusive. Still, people struggle with allergies and many people die from them, so why wouldn't researching a possible prevention method be worth it? 

2 Comments

Interesting post! I've actually wondered this before- why don't they do skin tests on children? It would be such a simple way to prevent serious food allergic reactions. determine your reaction to a particular food. In this test, a small amount of the suspected food is placed on the skin of your forearm or back. "Your skin is then pricked with a needle, to allow a tiny amount of the substance beneath your skin surface. If you're allergic to a particular substance being tested, you develop a raised bump or reaction. Keep in mind, a positive reaction to this test alone isn't enough to confirm a food allergy." I had this test done with common allergens. Unfortunately, as a kid I had to find out I was allergic to bees the hard way.

Great article, Ive been interesting in this topic too since I've had points in my life where I had allergies and others where I haven't. I have two young brothers that are now 3 and 4, I was always worried when they were trying new foods because they weren't able to get tested yet. I find this odd since by testing for allergies we could prevent major allergy attacks on children. This article (http://blogs.discovery.com/dfh-sara-novak/2013/05/7-reasons-why-more-kids-than-ever-before-have-allergies.html) focuses more on why kids are more allergy to things than older people. Check out number six on the list, it talks about food avoidance. If we had kids tested young we wouldn't have to avoid foods as much. Food for thought eh?

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