Why Food Allergies Are On The Rise + 5 Ways To Prevent Them
As an integrative clinician, I have noticed a steady increase in patients with food allergies over the years. Nationwide data backs me up: Approximately 32 million Americans currently have food allergies, and over 200,000 of them require medical care for food reactions each year. That includes around 13 million children1. Almost 11% of adults in the U.S.2 are suffering from food allergies—a figure that is doubling every decade.
While there is debate about exactly who should be eating what, one thing that we do know for sure is that food allergies are on the rise, and they are changing our relationship with food forever.
Here's why food allergies are increasing, what it means, and what we can do to stop free-falling into a society where everyone is restricted in what they can eat.
Food allergy vs. food intolerance.
Before we get into it, let's clarify the difference between a food allergy and a food intolerance.
A food allergy3 occurs when we have an immune-mediated reaction to a food or often a particular part of a food. This is usually mediated by IgE4, an antibody your body makes in response to allergens. Elevated levels of IgE can cause a cascade of reactions such as a skin rash, itching and swelling, dizziness, and the most life-threatening symptom, anaphylaxis (closing of the airways).
A food intolerance5, on the other hand, is usually localized to the digestive system. Although it can contribute to other symptoms like headaches and skin irritation, these are not directly caused by the immune system. Food intolerances are also steeply on the rise, but for the purpose of this article, I'm going to stick to the science on food allergies.
We weren't always this allergic: Food allergies are a relatively new disease.
Food allergies were practically unheard of before the 19th century6. For most of the 20th century, they were still fairly rare. Fast-forward to today, and hospital admissions for severe allergic reactions in Australia, the U.S., and the U.K. have doubled in the past decade. More alarming still, in children 4 years and younger, the increase in hospital admissions from anaphylactic allergy has increased by five times.
Even outside of these more serious allergic events, food allergies impact us as a society in profound ways7. Those with allergies (and the parents of those with allergies) need to worry about reactions with every meal. I had a patient recently who brought her son to see me. He had a total of four severe food allergies with varying degrees of symptoms; the worst was that when he consumed eggs or dairy, he went into anaphylaxis. His mother has seen him almost die twice—a significantly traumatic event that led her to not trust anyone to look after him. I didn't blame her: Eggs and dairy are everywhere. How is a layperson untrained in nutrition and food science supposed to know what to look for, let alone understand the gravity of the situation?
I'm also seeing a lot more patients seeking help for MCAS, or Mast Cell Activation Syndrome. This is a new area without a lot of research yet, but what I do know from observation is that there is an increasing subset of people experiencing significant inflammatory and histamine-driven reactions to many different foods. This makes it very difficult to pinpoint the issue and even harder to treat the condition.
So, why is the prevalence and severity of food allergies increasing so rapidly?
There are a few factors at play, but research shows us that the link between our immune system and our microbiome is largely to blame.
You see, in your gut, you have around 2 pounds8 of bacteria, yeasts, and other organisms that play a critical role in your health. We now know that over 80% of your immune system actually resides in your gut9, and it is constantly "tasting" the food and other substances that come through to see if they are safe for you.
This immune-gut connection gets started in childhood. There are several studies that link the microbiome of infants to their risk of developing allergies10. Babies inherit their mother's microbiome, and with each generation, our diversity and microbial health are waning.
Factors that can influence a child's microbiome—and therefore allergy risk—include whether they are breastfed11, how down and dirty they are allowed to get12, whether they live in a home with pets13, and which foods they are introduced to14 in their early years.
Antibiotic use also plays a role here. Antibiotics alter the gut microbiome and have been associated with allergy development in children15. A study of nearly 800,000 children found that not only did antibiotics lead to a 14% increase in the risk of developing food allergies and a whopping 51% increase in the risk of having life-threatening anaphylactic allergies, but infants given acid-blocking medication (for reflux and colic) were twice as likely to develop allergies as well16.
What can we do about it?
So what can we do to support our gut microbiome and reduce our risk of allergies? The basics that I share with my patients include:
- Work at least two types of probiotic foods into your diet daily. Miso, kimchi, sauerkraut, kefir, kombucha, and yogurt are good examples.
- Eat a whole-food diet rich in many types of plant fiber. Pile on the legumes, nuts, seeds, avocado, vegetables, and fruits with the skin on.
- Avoid antibiotics when you can by taking good care of your immune system: Get quality sleep, eat healthy food, and keep your stress in check.
- Eat a diet rich in bioflavonoids such as quercetin, which is found in onions, blueberries, blackberries, citrus peel, and apples and helps to modulate the immune response.
- I also routinely recommend probiotics. One of the most widely available that has been researched for allergies and microbiome restoration is Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG17.
Avoidance is key when allergies are significant, but it is possible for most people to outgrow allergies over time. Focusing on your gut health and immune health through the strategies above may help, but you may also benefit from seeing an integrative practitioner who can prescribe specific medicines to modulate immune function and support gut health.
Food allergies are on the rise, and they're here to stay. The link between the immune system and the microbiome is part of the reason allergies are skyrocketing in the U.S. and around the world18. As such, it's imperative that we take steps to support our microbial and immune health to soothe any allergies we do have and/or prevent new ones from forming.
Katherine Maslen, N.D. is a clinical naturopath, nutritionist, author, and podcast host living in Australia. She has her bachelor’s in health science, naturopathy, from the Endeavor College of Natural Health and is a regular voice in the media. She is well known for her podcast, The Shift, which features 25 world-renowned leaders in gut and overall health, including Vincent Pedre, M.D., Marvin Singh, M.D., and David Perlmutter, M.D..
In addition to overcoming her own personal health struggles, including domestic violence and heroin addiction, Maslen has personally seen over 4,000 patients. She is the founder of the international wellness company Shift, speaks internationally on health and wellness, and has also authored Get Well, Stay Well.