What’s the cause of food allergies?


Does it seem like everywhere you turn lately someone is talking about food allergies? It makes you wonder doesn’t it?

Do more people have food allergies than previous generations, is there a better level of diagnosis in modern times, meaning that although the same number of people have food allergies we’re more aware of it now than we were historically, or are we all just spending way too much time talking about food allergies and becoming overly paranoid as a result?

Firstly – a few very simplified definitions (feel free to Google for better science-based definitions). A food allergy occurs when your immune system (that’s the body’s defence against disease) mistakes a food item as a harmful substance and tries to neutralise the substance.

The chemicals released by the immune system are what give you the side-effects of a food allergy e.g. diarrhoea, anaphylaxis etc. Coeliac disease is similar to a food allergy, but involves a more complex immune response that also decreases the body’s ability to absorb nutrients if you eat foods containing gluten. Of course it’s all much more complex than that and immunologists are still working to try to understand allergies. Onwards …

In previous generations where food allergies were less common, those who did have them (or coeliac disease) often went undiagnosed. Although unofficially diagnosed, you can often see possible signs of food allergies when you look back in family lines.

For example you may have heard of ancestors who avoided eating certain food or have ancestors who suffered with bowel cancer. In my mother’s family line where the gluten issue crops up, we know of several ancestors who had bowel issues (including bowel cancer) and problems with fatigue.

Adding to the increase in diagnosis rates in modern times, there ARE actually more people with food allergies. A 2013 report showed an increase of 50 percent in the number of children diagnosed with a food allergy between 1997 and 2011.  That’s a huge increase. And, the number of serious food allergy incidences reported by hospitals (typically an anaphylactic response) has increased seven fold over the past decade.

So it is a fact that more people are talking about food allergies, but it’s for a good reason – many more people are suffering the side-effects of food allergies.

Here’s the big question. Why are we seeing an increase in food allergies?

It’s a good question and there really isn’t an agreed upon answer at this time. There is a genetic factor. People with a family history of food allergies are more likely to suffer from them. With coeliac disease there are specific genes HLA DQ 8 and HLA DQ 10 that have been found to be prevalent in 99 percent of those diagnosed.

However, just because you have the genes doesn’t necessarily mean you will have food allergies or coeliac disease. It’s a case of genetics and environmental triggers working together. But just what those environmental triggers actually are is where the real debate rages.


The hygiene hypothesis
One theory is that compared with previous generations we’ve spent way too much energy on keeping our children clean.
The hygiene hypothesis is based around the idea that children need to be exposed to a certain level of infectious agents, parasites, and micro-organisms for the immune system to fully develop. Without this exposure, the immune system is repressed and more vulnerable to autoimmune issues (including allergies).

Exposure to toxic chemicals
Another theory is that our increased exposure to toxic chemicals compared with previous generations has weakened our immune system. These alleged culprits include: Roundup (aka glyphosate), diesel, chlorine etc.

Roundup in particular has received a lot of attention for its possible effect on the immune system. It is widely used in New Zealand and overseas as both an insecticide and a drying agents on many food crops.

Introduction of allergenic food
There are two conflicting ideas here – one theory is that children who are introduced to allergenic foods too early (e.g. nuts, eggs, gluten) are more likely to develop a food allergy. And the opposing theory is that not introducing the allergic food early enough makes a child more likely to develop a food allergy.

The western diet
A diet high in sugar, animal fats and processed foods (including additives etc.) is also thought to be a cause in increased food allergies.

This theory posits that the western diet enhances poor gut bacteria and destroys good gut bacteria, making the immune system more susceptible to attack.

Gut bacteria
The common theme across many of the food allergy theories is the role gut bacteria plays in supporting the health of the immune system. Among other things, good gut bacteria is vital to ensure digestion of food, production of some vitamins, and acts as a barrier to support the immune system.

Many integrative practitioners suggest that by healing the gut, you are likely to recover (to some extent anyway) from food allergy sensitivity. Note: if you have coeliac disease, healing the gut is a good idea but will still never make it safe for you to eat gluten because of the nature of its autoimmune nastiness.

Next month I’ll write about gut health and give you some ideas of what you can do to boost your immune system by introducing and maintaining good gut bacteria.


Recipe: Noodle yums (gluten-free, dairy-free)

noodleyumsI’m sure this recipe has an official name, but we simply call it noodle yums. The original recipe comes from my brother-in-law, Ted, who is a really good cook.  I love it when he’s in the kitchen.

You can use either fresh rice noodles from Asian supermarkets or any other gluten-free grain or pasta.

Also in this recipe you’ll note the use of tamari. Tamari is usually gluten-free (be sure to check the label) and is a good alternative to soy sauce which has a similar taste but usually contains wheat.

Approx 1 kg beef
Green vegetables for stir-frying e.g. bok choi, pak choi
Rice, fresh rice noodles or gluten-free pasta
4 tablespoons tamari (gluten-free)
3 tablespoons sesame oil
Approx 1 tablespoon arrowroot or cornflour
¼ cup water

Chop beef into bite-sized pieces. In a bowl mix tamari and sesame oil. Add beef and allow to soak for an hour.

Chop up greens and set aside.

Cook rice noodles/pasta/rice, drain and set aside.

In a separate bowl mix three eggs, a pinch of salt and pepper to taste. Pan fry egg mixture (you’re making an omelette here). Once egg is set cut into bite sized pieces and remove from pan.

Pan-fry beef with tamari/sesame oil mix and water. Mix arrowroot or cornflour with a small amount of water and slowly add to the pan until thickened to the desired consistency. If the mix gets too thick, just add a bit of water.

Once meat is browned, add greens, egg, rice noodles and mix.

Add salt, pepper and more tamari to taste. Voila!


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