We all know that children can be notoriously picky when it comes to food, but for kids with severe food allergies an extremely limited diet can be a life saver. Current data shows that close to 7 percent of all kids in the United States have food allergies, well over double the number reported a decade ago. This upward trend was reported in several new studies which show food allergies, especially to peanut and tree nuts are still on the rise among kids. Yet despite the wealth of information proving the increase in these cases, researches can’t seem to figure out why the numbers are growing.
“I think it’s a big puzzle that we still don’t fully understand,” says Dale Umetsu, MD, PhD, of Children’s Hospital Boston’s Allergy Program and Professor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. “Clearly there are changes in our environment that are causing this increase but we don’t know which ones; it could be a slew of different factors.”
Umetsu, who spends his days caring for patients with severe allergies and researching their root causes, says one of the more popular ideas concerning growing food allergy cases is that improved medicines and medical treatment, when combined with our hyper clean modern culture, has eliminated a lot of minor and major bacteria and infections that years ago human immune systems battled regularly. The result is an altered immune systems that hasn’t the strength or knowledge about which bacteria to fight off and which to leave alone. Under these circumstances certain foods or otherwise harmless bacteria can be perceived as dangerous by some people’s immune systems and are unnecessarily attacked. Dubbed the Hygiene Hypothesis, the concept is very popular among many in the medical field, and has been the basis for much debate even though concrete evidence either for or against the theory’s legitimacy has been difficult to come by.
One thing Umetsu knows for sure is the symptoms of an allergy to peanuts and/or tree nuts are far more obvious and than those of other types food allergies, which may account for their staggering numbers in recent years. “When talking about peanut allergies the symptoms are so much more obvious— like hives or respiratory problems— so they are far quicker to be diagnosed than someone with a more subtle food allergy, like a minor reaction to some thing like cucumbers,” he says.
Umetsu says the research being done at Children’s and other medical institutions is making headway in treating— maybe even curing— food allergies, but for now a parent’s best ally in keeping their allergic kids safe is reliable information.
“There is a lot of information out there and one has to be careful about selecting the best websites or publications to read when trying to gather real data about food allergies,” he says, “people just need to be careful when deciding who they’re going to listen to.”
To learn more about the research Umetsu has done on treating food allergies, including a groundbreaking study that could train allergenic immune systems to tolerate milk through desensitization, check out this recent story in Dream Magazine, which focused on the Children’s study’s and its success in treating a particularly allergic child.