Why Are Peanut Allergies So Prevalent?
Nut allergies are on the rise, but little is known about their causes.
Web2Carz Staff Writer
Published: October 17th, 2012
Are researchers any closer to understanding why nut allergies are becoming more common than they were a decade ago?
hen was the last time you sent your child to school with a peanut butter sandwich? If the answer is never, there’s a reason.
Documented numbers of food allergy sufferers rise exponentially every year, and as a result some schools have banned it. Peanuts and tree nuts are rapidly becoming the leading cause of fatal reactions to food; now, with the majority of reported cases of nut-induced life-threatening allergic reactions, experts speculate that the peanuts- often hidden in the ingredients of many of store bought processed foods--trigger immune responses.
But beyond speculation, are researchers any closer to understanding why nut allergies are becoming more common than they were a decade ago?
“This is the $64,000 question,” Dr. Brian Vickery, associate professor of Pediatrics at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill recently told us. “And surely that question is instinctive; the mind wants to find a simple elegant explanation. But in reality, the likelihood is that the answer is going to be multi factoral and complex.”
And while allergists and researchers put forth theories, no one has been able to really pin-point the reason why all of a sudden there are more people afflicted with peanut allergies
For Cindy Smith, a fitness instructor from Highland Park, Illinois, whose daughter suffers from severe allergies to peanuts, the lack of medical progress is a major cause of concern.
“When my daughter was three the allergist tested her for allergies, gave her a scratch test for peanut allergy (introducing a minute amount of allergens into the blood stream) and she turned purple, stopped breathing, and grabbed her throat,” Smith told us.
“To watch your three-year-old go through that, it really changes your whole life. I went with a garbage bag to my pantry and emptied everything that had contained peanuts -Cheetos, cookies, and processed food. Afterwards there was nothing left in there. Now she can’t eat boxed baked goods, and most processed foods. And, I can’t let her eat birthday cake- which socially changes a lot of things because she has to show up at birthday parties with her own cake in a Tupperware container.”
A number of theories have suggested a correlation between the increases in peanut allergies. In some circles, studies have shown that birth by C-section is maybe one factor. Low levels of vitamin D have also been called into question, as well as the presence of certain populations of bacteria in the gut, making those vulnerable to food allergies more likely to develop one.
“All of these factors may contribute to the increase in allergens but clearly are not sufficient to address the magnitude of the problem,” Vickery said.
“Having said that, there have been well known studies that have shown convincingly an increase in other inflammatory diseases-asthma, and not just allergic reactions. There’s something about modern life that produces some kind of deregulated immune response, the advances in industrialization and lifestyle have made allergic disease much more common.”
With a cure for peanut allergies nowhere in sight, researchers continue to work on developing medications to change immune responses. Doctors tell patients to practice a strict elimination diet to avoid problematic foods, and always carry around Benadryl and epi-pens. Certain experimental studies in the US and Great Britain have started enrolling young children and testing the deliberate introduction of peanuts and tree nuts to see if patients are able to build up a tolerance.
Still, measures to protect peanut allergy sufferers from exposure are more common than ever. Airlines have banned peanuts on their flights, baseball stadiums have created “peanut free zones” and schools across the country are asking parents to abstain from sending children to school with any food products containing harmful food allergens which might put other children at risk.
And while increasing awareness may alleviate some anxiety, for parents like Cindy Smith, most afflicted with allergies will never be without worry.
“There’s nothing that’s ever going to be peanut-free,” said Smith.
“The moment you let your guard down, that’s when bad things happen.”