Last summer, teenager Scott Johnson died from a severe dairy allergy after eating pancakes from a restaurant his family trusted. In November, 19-year-old Chandler Swink died from a severe reaction to a peanut allergy. Two years ago, 13-year-old Natalie Giorgi died from a summer camp treat made with peanut butter. Unfortunately, stories like these are being more common because severe allergies are on the rise. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported in 2013 that, between 1997 and 2011, food allergies have increased by 50% in children. Not only that, but allergies are mostly on the rise in developed countries, rather than in 3rd nations like we might expect. What are the most likely causes of allergies? Could there be environmental and toxic issues involved that are hurting our children? Scientists and experts debate this topic and studies have shown few concrete answers, but here are some of the top possible causes of allergies in the U.S.
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Top 8 Possible Causes of Allergies in Children
1. NOT Breastfeeding Your Child
We all know the old adage “breast is best,” but could breastfeeding also prevent allergies in babies? A January 2008 report published in Pediatrics found that exclusive breastfeeding for at least the first 4 months of life appeared to help “protect high-risk children against milk allergies and eczema” in their early life. (Babies at high risk are those with allergies in their family history.) Allergies are an overreaction of the immune system to an irritant, and thus, breastfeeding can help an infant build up immunity. A 2010 study in the Journal of Pediatrics showed that breast milk containing allergens could teach the immune system to ward off both allergies and asthma, which are closely related. This goes along with another theory – that early exposure to allergens may prevent them.
In 2013, ABC News reported on the possibility that C-Sections may be tied to a risk in allergies. Our bodies contain healthy bacteria and during the journey through the birth canal, babies are exposed to a “healthy dose” of that bacteria, passing along that protection to a newborn. Babies who are born via C-section may be missing out so it is important that women who do deliver this way seriously consider breastfeeding their babies.
Robyn O’Brien, the author of “The Healthy Untruth” writes extensively about this topic, specifically on the skyrocketing problem of deadly peanut allergies. In conventional farming, peanuts are usually treated every 8-10 days with glyphosate-laden pesticides. They are also often farmed in rotation with cotton, which is treated in almost the same way. Spraying all those chemicals kills the beneficial microorganisms in the soil. In fact, glyphosate was originally patented by Monsanto as an antibiotic. A recent study published by the American Society of Microbiology’s journal mBIO linked glyphosate to an increase in antibiotic resistance bacteria. Researchers say that some exposure is possible from eating food, but those in the agricultural community are at highest risk. Avoiding exposure to glyphosate and pesticides is a wise choice in general, but it possibly can help avoid allergies.
4. Hygiene Theory and Antibiotic Resistance
The Hygiene Theory states that developed nations are “too clean” – that is, we are no longer exposed to enough bacteria, dirt and germs and our natural immunity has disappeared. This theory is supported by a study that showed that lower rates of allergies among Amish farm children. Of course, Amish children are also less exposed to processed foods and other toxins than other children in the U.S. With careless use of hand sanitizers, this theory does have merit but another important contributor to this problem is antibiotic resistance, which kills as many as 23,000 people every year.
Dr. Martin Blaser, microbiologist and professor at New York University, believes that exposure to antibiotics early in life reduces healthy good gut bacteria and make children susceptible to allergies. He has been studying bacteria in humans for over 30 years and has written “Missing Microbes,” which documents the dangers of overusing antibiotics. We need to remember than when give our children medicine, there is often a trade off and a cost. Make sure to talk to your doctor about your concerns. In addition, a study published last year showed that doses of Clostridia, a class of “good” gut bacteria, protected mice from food allergies. When those same mice were given antibiotics, their sensitivity to food allergens increased. One of the researchers, Cathryn R. Nagler, Ph.D. and Bunning Food Allergy professor at the University of Chicago, says that overuse of antibiotics contributes to the rise in allergies because they change the bacteria in our gut, leaving children vulnerable to severe food allergies.
5. Processed Foods: Fat and Additives
Another hotly debated topic is the role of processed foods as one of the causes of allergies. There is a risk due to common issues like cross-contamination among products, undisclosed allergens and erroneous labeling, but can processed foods themselves be the problem? Dr. Nagler states that fatty, processed foods also negatively impact gut bacteria, producing allergies. In addition additives, generally in the form of preservatives, vary far and wide. Nitrates, sulfites, food coloring and MSG in additive form have been known to cause reactions that mimic allergies, including rashes, headaches and itching. Because additives are derived from a range of places, including allergens and toxic chemicals, there’s no way to know if you will have a reaction to them until it is too late.
According to a 2004 study done by Environmental Working Group (EWG), 10 babies tested had 287 chemicals in the umbilical cord blood, many of which were carcinogens, neurotoxins or chemicals that could cause birth defects. We are just starting to research the dangers of prenatal chemical exposure. For example, at least one study suggests that prenatal lead exposure is linked to allergies. A 2007 study showed that mice given PFOA triggered an allergic reaction when they were exposed to eggs. PFOA is a chemical used on Teflon pans, Gore-Tex fabric, microwave popcorn bags, and in lots of other items such as stain-resistant carpet, clothing, backpacks and luggage. We don’t know the effect of the combination of these chemicals, whether they are labeled as toxic or generally recognized as safe (GRAS) – nor does the FDA. More research is required on chemicals, additives and their contribution to allergies and other reactions.
7. Climate Change and Air Pollution
Just like allergies, asthma is also on the rise in the U.S. The CDC reports that asthma sufferers grew by 28% between 2001 and 2011. Is climate change contributing to the rise in asthma and sinus allergies? The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) just updated a report stating that climate change builds up levels of CO2, which makes the air quality worse and increases ragweed pollen contributing to air pollution. The update reveals that 1 in 3 Americans – 109 million people – are now exposed to “worsening respiratory allergies and asthmas associated with climate change.” On top of this, the pollen season is getting longer and producing stronger reactions in people. Some kids are even need to be hospitalized for an allergy or asthma attack. The dangers of climate change and increasing pollution cannot be overstated. Prenatal exposure to air pollution has even been linked to autism, a December 2014 shows – and kids with autism are often susceptible to food, lung and sinus allergies.
8. A Leaky Gut
Leaky Gut Syndrome describes a condition where the pores that exist in your small intestine widen enough to allow molecules to slip out of the gut into places they should not be. Your small intestine is the place responsible for absorbing your food, including nutrients. If you have a leaky gut, bits of undigested food particles can end up in your bloodstream. Your body sees those particles as invaders and overreacts, creating havoc in your immune system. This can cause food sensitivities and allergies as well as autoimmune disorders. Leaky gut is common in people who suffer from Celiac or Crohn’s disease, but it may also be caused by inflammation and an imbalance in gut bacteria. This condition is very hard to diagnose and symptoms can range from bloating, gas, and pain to food sensitivities. For those who already have food allergies, developing a condition of leaky gut can increase the severity.
Raising kids with allergies creates a difficult challenge for parents today. We have more options than ever in buying allergy-free products, but clean, natural living may go a long way towards helping our children thrive and maybe even conquer some allergies. Breastfeeding, reducing antibiotics when possible, eating organic, eliminating antibacterial hand sanitizers, eliminating processed foods laden with additives, avoiding toxic chemicals and maintaining a healthy gut can go a long way to supporting our kids’ health and improving – or preventing – allergies and asthma.