Allergies vs Sensitivities

Phoenix Allergy Relief Doctors

Suffering from allergies?

True food allergies are based on exposure to a specific protein component of a food. The immune system incorrectly perceives the protein as a threat and produces antibodies in response. With repeated exposure, cells release histamine and other biochemicals in response to the allergenic food. It is these chemicals that cause the allergy symptoms. True food allergies are estimated to affect less than 2 percent of adults and 4 to 8 percent of young children and infants.

Food sensitivities are much more common, although estimates vary. Sensitivities are abnormal reactions to food or food components that do not involve the immune system, but involve the body as a whole. There are three types of food sensitivities:

  1. A metabolic food disorder occurs when a person is genetically unable to properly or fully metabolize a food component. This includes lactose intolerance (inability to metabolize lactose), which is different from dairy allergies. A dairy allergy can be treated successfully with AAE whereas a true lactose intolerance cannot be treated. However, it is common for people with reactions to dairy to be misdiagnosed as lactose intolerant when the condition is actually a sensitivity.

    Another example of a metabolic food disorder is favism (genetic deficiency causing a sensitivity to a chemical in fava beans.

  2. Food idiosyncrasy is another form of sensitivity with an abnormal response to a food or food component, but the mechanism for the response is unknown. The symptoms can resemble those of an allergy and can be either severe or mild. Sulfite-induced asthma is one example and causes asthmatic reactions in 1.7 percent of all asthmatics.

  3. An anaphylactoid response is a type of reaction that elicits the same release of histamine as a true food allergy, but it does not involve the immune system. The specific substance that causes this reaction has not yet been identified. The response is not the same as anaphylaxis.

Rise in Allergies

Studies have shown a number of possible factors that may be contributing to the rise in allergies. The most prominent, the Hygiene Hypothesis, theorizes that modern day hygiene creates a bacteria-free environment, which prevents an active immune system in early childhood. This may be causing the immune system to become more prone to allergies since the defense system is not challenged by harmless bacteria. Children who are exposed to such bacteria earlier in life appear to have reduced risk in developing allergies by boosting immune activity.

However, the rise in allergies may also be a consequence of the changing environment. Christine Rogers Ph.D., a research associate in Environmental Science and Engineering at Harvard University explains that there have been significant increases in allergies and asthma in recent decades, which cannot be explained by any change in genetics.

According to Rogers, global warming is having an impact on the growing season with spring occurring earlier in most places. Along with an increase in carbon dioxide levels, this will result in longer and more intense allergy seasons in the future. Based on their studies, it is estimated that pollen production in ragweed can be expected to increase significantly from predicted future climate conditions.

Aeroallergens are becoming more abundant due to climate change and causing more cases of allergies with stronger reactions. Paul Epstein, M.D., co-director from the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard confirms that global warming is directly affecting pollen production. From the atmosphere becoming more clogged with carbon dioxide, plants are responding by producing more allergens. Higher rates of asthma are expected due to higher levels of pollen and changes in the types of molds brought about by global warming.

CBS News: HealthWatch, June 7, 2006

While environmental changes and more hygienic homes may be causing an increase in respiratory allergies, there are no studies available showing that either of these factors is contributing to the food sensitivity epidemic. While it is estimated that only 2-8% of the population has “true” food allergies, such estimates are based on the fact that the majority of food reactions do not involve an IgE mediated response, therefore are not considered true allergies. Consequently, the percentages are quite low and do not represent the actual number of people who suffer negative reactions from food.

The rates for food sensitivities have risen dramatically in the last 25 years, requiring multiple industries to accommodate this 21st century reality with food package labeling and alternative meal choices in restaurants, cafeterias and airplanes. As respiratory allergies have been affected by environmental changes from global warming and pollution as well as modern hygiene, changes in the human diet may also be contributing to food sensitivities.

In recent decades, alterations to food have included increased pesticide use, irradiation, thermal processing, adding artificial colors and flavors, synthetic vitamin fortification, chemical preservation, and hydrogenation. While further studies need to be conducted on the health effects of food adulteration, a growing body of evidence suggests that tampering with the human diet is playing a major role in multiple conditions unique to the last 30 years.

Food Processing and Allergies

Alterations in the human diet have been significant in developed countries over the last 30 years. To accommodate convenience, marketing, extended shelf life and large-scale production, numerous methods of food processing have evolved. Such methods include preparation, mechanical processes, separation, isolation and purification, thermal processing, biochemical processing, genetic engineering, irradiation, synthetic vitamin fortification and the addition of natural and artificial colors, flavors and preservatives.

Conflicting studies show both the safety and health risks involved with the many aspects of commercial food production. For example, thermal processing has been shown to reduce the allergenicity of various food proteins as the high temperatures cause significant alterations in protein structure. However, multiple studies have also concluded that the thermal processing of peanuts actually enhances the allergenicity.

Various methods of food processing can have an effect on protein molecules, which may be targeted by the immune system. High levels of heat can cause disorganization within the structure and lead to denaturation of the proteins. Chemical modifications of the protein may also occur at high temperatures. In addition, there may be interactions with other constituents within foods, which can have a major effect on the allergenicity of the processed food. With such modifications taking place on the molecular level, it is possible that the body may reject a food component, which has been changed from its native conformation. Furthermore, it is difficult to rely on IgE binding studies of food proteins since they have a poor specificity and sensitivity for assessing the allergenicity. Yet these studies are commonly used for the evaluation of the safety of new foods.

The culmination of various forms of food adulteration and modification may be responsible for the sharp increase in food sensitivities. Since inadequate attention has been placed on studies addressing food sensitivities, little is known about the broad range of symptoms and their link to specific foods. However, numerous studies have consistently shown that avoidance of certain foods can elicit a marked decrease or resolve in related symptoms, even though the reaction is not a true allergy with an IgE mediated response. In fact, food sensitivities have become a prevalent health issue and further research is necessary to determine the possible causes contributing to the increasing number of sufferers.

The recommended diet to promote health includes fresh fruits, vegetables, legumes (beans), whole grains, low-fat dairy products, fish, lean meats and poultry, as advised by the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society. The Association continues to recommend a predominantly plant-based diet that includes eating five servings of fruits and vegetables and six servings of non-refined, whole grains daily. Recently, the recommendation has included two weekly servings of fatty fish, such as tuna or salmon. Minimizing refined and processed foods and thoroughly washing produce is also recommended.

The most prevalent studies available on food modification and adulteration have focused on the use of pesticides and the link to cancer, allergies and the effects on the endocrine system, as pesticides can mimic hormones (referred to as endocrine disruptors).

The majority of studies focus on exposure to more dangerous levels of pesticides, which can cause serious health conditions. Few studies have included the long-term effects from cumulative exposure to low levels of pesticides.

The CSIRO in Australia estimates that pesticide use has increased 50 fold over the last 60 years from 50 million kg in 1945 to 2.5 billion kg in 1995. The worldwide environmental cost from pesticide use is $100 billion per year.

Since the long-term effects of low-level pesticide exposure are currently unknown, consumers may choose to purchase certified organic produce. Alternatively, consumers may follow the Pesticide Guidelines from the US Environmental Protection Agency where organic produce is not available or pesticide residues are unknown.

Proactive efforts to minimize exposure to pesticides, artificial additives, chemical preservatives and other various forms of food adulteration or modification may prevent the associated health effects and sensitivities to food. However, once an allergy or sensitivity has developed, such measures may not resolve the condition.

Multiple studies have shown various negative impacts from pesticide use and food adulteration. In the case of food sensitivities or allergies, the body may be developing a negative reaction to a harmless food or protein due to the association with pesticides, artificial additives or the modification of protein structure.

It is important that science and medicine endeavor to meet these challenges of the 21st century to accommodate the environmental and health impact from modern commercial practices. The development of Advanced Allergy Therapeutics is one solution to this growing health issue. With the ability to retrain the immune system to correct an inappropriate response, allergy sufferers may regain their health and relationship to the environment. However, by neglecting the environmental contributors to these health issues, the number of allergy sufferers will most likely continue to rise worldwide.