Nuts and Wheat and Milk ... Oh My!
The Natural Treatment of Allergies
For those of us over the age of 20 it may feel like food allergies have gotten way out of control being commonplace today where in our youth they were rare. Through primary and secondary classes a child with a food allergy was out of the norm enough that there was a school assembly to discuss it. Many of us had peanut butter and jam sandwiches for lunch and our parents didn't have to worry about what they could or could not pack.
All allergies are overreactions of the body’s immune system when exposed to what should be a harmless trigger. The immune system falsely identifies the trigger as a significant threat and responds aggressively, with potentially fatal results.
Today children come home the first week of school with a list of foods that are banned from the school (it changes year to year) to protect students. Many school offices have an allergy bulletin board with pictures of each child listing their specific allergies and degree of severity. We keep better statistics on children than we do for adults so looking at the situation with children shows us the depth of the problem for all Canadians.
7% of Canadians have food allergies
Food allergies in children increased 50% between 1997 & 2011
between 1997 & 2008 peanut or tree nut allergies more than tripled in children
about 30% of children with food allergies are allergic to more than one food
Most allergic reactions are annoying; stomach pain, indigestion, skin rash, hives, swelling. Anaphylaxis on the other hand is the most serious type of allergic reaction that is rapid in onset and may cause death. During anaphylaxis a person may have trouble breathing or experience a drop in blood pressure. These symptoms can lead to death if not treated. Up to 700,000 Canadians are at risk of Anaphylaxis. Despite better diagnosis, public awareness, and mandatory product labelling, Emergency Room visits for Allergic reactions have nearly doubled over the past seven years.
How did we get here?
In 1906 the word “allergy” was coined. Since then their prevalence has been skyrocketing. Experts believe that asthma has always existed but historically it probably was exceptionally rare.
Genetic studies are close but not definitive. We know that just a few of our 20,000 genes (as few as 20) are responsible for creating our risk of allergies. These studies also revealed that the genes for food allergies significantly overlap with those for other more common allergies, such as asthma and hay fever. Our genes create the risk of allergies, but since we as a group (and our ancestors) have been carrying this (or similar) DNA for thousands of years without being so allergic means we are probably responsible for the meteoric rise in food allergies. Experts believe there are some primary contributing factors for the rise in allergic reactions:
Avoiding introduction: For decades prevailing thought was for infants to avoid potential allergens. Recent studies have shown this could be making the problem dramatically worse. Of those who avoided peanuts as infants (the study allergen), 17% ended up with peanut allergies while only 3% of those who ate peanuts demonstrated an allergy by age 5.
Although frightening to new parents, it appears that introducing allergens at the same time infants are beginning to have solid foods is the key. Hospitals and pediatricians are starting to work with parents in controlled environments to introduce allergens while monitoring to ensure safety should a reaction occur.
Microbiome Imbalance: Allergy sufferers have substantially less diverse (and less dense) Intestinal flora. Our gut is home to the majority of our immune system and imbalances here have a profound impact. Our gut microbiome is shaped throughout our life, evolving with every bacterial contact we have. Studies in identical groups with vastly different allergy rates show that the epidemic results directly from reduced exposure to natural environments with rich microbiota, changed diet and sedentary lifestyle. Essentially the more diverse your contacts (particularly when young) the more likely you are to have a healthy diverse microbiome and fewer allergies.
Sun: Observational studies have shown that food allergies tend to align with availability of sunlight. Lack of exposure to sunlight – and a consequent vitamin D deficiency – can make infants three times more likely to have an egg allergy and 11 times more likely to have a peanut allergy. Modern living and fear of skin cancer results in us spending more time indoors, and covering up when we are outdoors. This makes vitamin D deficiency more common, particularly in children. Research measuring vitamin D from blood samples shows association between low vitamin D and increased risk of allergies. Compounding the problem is that no matter where you live in Canada it isn’t possible to get enough sunlight for more than a few weeks each year (at best) to produce adequate vitamin D.
How do we help alleviate the problem?
Unfortunately there is no cure for food allergies so if you have one (or more) your options are limited. Primary therapy is strict avoidance of anything containing the allergen or by-products from the allergen. This is the safest way to avoid allergic reactions. Clinical trials have shown promising results using a combination of desensitization with immunotherapy. This is where incremental exposure to the allergen helps to slowly (possibly over the course of years) reduce sensitivity. Talk to your doctor to see if you are a candidate. Do not under ANY circumstances try this without direct medical supervision.
Probiotics have been studied for the treatment of various types of allergies including food allergies. The clinical trials have shown mixed results varying from no improvement to low levels of success. Because there is no negative implication to the use of probiotics you have nothing to lose and only improved health to gain, making them worth trying. To further minimize risk, ensure you take certified organic vegan probiotics (the cleanest available, with fewest potential allergens). Probiotics can be used by both those with allergies and by infants to enhance their microbiome and help prevent allergies.
We know Vitamin D is important for many aspects of good health and that Canadians don’t get enough. Research is beginning to support the idea that Vitamin D can protect against food allergies. The only way to ensure you have enough Vitamin D is the combination of sensible sun exposure, adequate intake of foods containing vitamin D and supplementing with the vitamin itself.
Everyone should take Vitamin D daily. It’s one of the least expensive vitamin supplements, with daily doses costing pennies. To further minimize risk, ensure you take vegan Vitamin D oil-based drops (the cleanest available, with fewest potential allergens).
Pregnant women need to ensure they have adequate Vitamin D (particularly in late pregnancy) for both themselves and their babies. Infant Vitamin D stores in the first year of life are directly related to the mother’s stores before birth.
Infants, toddlers and children should take supplemental Vitamin D each day not just for allergy prevention but also for overall general good health. Ensure you are using vegan Vitamin D oil-based drops specifically for them so they don’t get too large a dose.
Milk Thistle is a herb well known for its ability to aid the liver and detoxify the body. While its exact methods of action in allergies have not been discovered, it has been shown to decrease allergy symptoms when combined with antihistamines. Unless you suffer from ragweed allergies (milk thistle is in the same plant family) milk thistle has no known issues and can improve your health beyond just allergies. To further minimize risk, ensure you take certified organic milk thistle concentrate (the cleanest available, with fewest potential allergens).
The Omega-3 EFAs DHA & EPA are found naturally in fish oil and are anti-inflammatory with protective effects in inflammatory diseases including asthma and allergies. Many studies on allergies and omega-3 fatty acid supplementation during pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adulthood show protective effects. They also show decreased intake of fish oil in modernized diets is linked to an increase in asthma and allergies. Unless you suffer from fish or shellfish allergies, fish oil supplementation can help overall in all stages of life. Some supplements cause unpleasant repeating so keep trying until you find one that you “like” and take it daily.
We need to encourage our kids to play outside, get dirty, try new things - maybe even have a tiny taste of the mud pie they made. Hopefully one day children will once again be able to freely enjoy our childhood staple... a delicious peanut butter and jelly sandwich on fresh bread with a cold glass of milk!
Joel Thuna, MH, is a master herbalist with over 30 years of experience. Dr. Claude Gallant holds a PhD in Microbiology.