A few summers ago, a friend brought back a box of chocolates from Russia, and we sat enjoying them on my back porch one evening. Suddenly, I felt a wracking pain in my stomach and it became difficult to breath. A few minutes later, I was riddled from hives head to toe, vaguely resembling a victim of the sixth plague.
Fortunately, my friend drove me to the emergency room in time for the doctor to administer a shot of epinephrine that allowed me to start breathing again. It turns out that the candies contained peanuts, and that I had had an anaphylactic reaction, an acute allergic response that can lead to coma and even death within minutes if left untreated. Sure enough, when I went to an allergist to be tested, my histamine response to peanuts was off the charts.
According to David D. Tanner, M.D., associate clinical professor of medicine at Emory University and specialist at the Atlanta Allergy and Asthma Clinic, more adults than ever are having adverse reactions to food. Food allergies are normal among children, who usually grow out of them, since their immune systems are still developing, but the rise in adults suggests that something else is going on. That something may very well be the environment.
An allergic reaction occurs when your body reacts to a particular food as if it were a bacterial or viral threat. Your immune system responds to the perceived invader by producing large amounts of immunoglobulin E (IgE), an antibody that travels through the blood to guard your body's entrances and exits: your nose, mouth and throat, and gastrointestinal (GI) tract. IgE attaches to mast cells that release histamine and cause swelling, which is meant to keep the attackers from getting deeper into your body.
There are several reasons why food allergies have been linked to environmental factors. The rise is seen in conjunction with a rise in hay fever and outdoor allergies, which has doubled in the last 20 years. Increases in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and higher temperatures result in plants and trees generating more pollen, which scientists think may be a "gateway" allergy that predisposes you for allergies to other, edible, plants. Peanut allergies, for example, are more common in people with a history of other allergic conditions like eczema, hay fever, or asthma.
The way we grow our food may also be a culprit. Peanuts are the most common allergy among adults and, when conventionally grown, are laden with pesticides. Research has not found a conclusive link between the two, but allergies to pesticides have been confirmed, and it is possible that their use may somehow affect the human immune system. Also, factory-farmed animals (who produce your meat, poultry, milk, and eggs) are routinely dosed with antibiotics, raising concerns about resistance among the humans who eat them. Antibiotics may also lead to leaky gut syndrome, in which damage to the lining of the GI tract can admit undigested food, waste or larger than normal macromolecules. These substances may affect the body directly or through an elevated immune response. To combat leaky gut, Gary B. Huggnagle, professor of internal medicine, microbiology, and immunology at the University of Michigan Medical Center, and author of The Probiotics Revolution, recommends taking a daily probiotic supplement, which you can find at your local health food store.
Deciding what and how to feed ourselves has always been a life-and-death matter, but never quite in this way. To paraphrase Michael Pollan, contributing writer to The New York Times Magazine, Knight Professor of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of The Omnivore's Dilemma, we have found, through trial and error, which foods are toxic to us and which are not. Now, however, we are creating our own toxicity through poor farming and eating practices. This rise in food allergies among adults is merely an illustration of this phenomenon, one that must be reversed if we are going to live to eat another meal.