An Allergy Epidemic? Understanding Allergies
According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, allergies plague more than 60 million Americans — one out of every five.
Allergy is the abnormal reaction by the body’s immune system to a substance that is usually not harmful. According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America’s website, allergy prevalence overall has been increasing since the early 1980s across all age, sex and racial groups. Theories exist as to why allergies are on the rise, but so far they remain pretty much that – theories.
Dr. Thomas F. Johnson is an allergist/immunologist at New England Allergy, Asthma & Immunology in North Andover, where he most commonly treats pollen allergies.
Nuts, soy, cow’s milk, chicken eggs, wheat and shellfish allergies are the most common food allergies Johnson sees.
“We don’t know why food allergies are as prevalent as they are, but we have a theory relating to the hygiene hypothesis,” Johnson says. “It suggests that since we have prevented so many infectious diseases through vaccines, the immune system has shifted toward producing allergy antibodies at a higher rate, and to a higher degree, than had the immune system been challenged by the infectious . There appears to be some truth to this, but it is still all theory; nobody knows for sure.”
Despite the possible correlation between vaccinations and allergies, Johnson says vaccinating against diseases such as rubella, chicken pox or measles is valuable.
“There is no question that infectious disease being controlled is a good thing,” he says.
The best course of action against an allergy is to treat it effectively. This may involve FDA-approved medications, environmental control measures and desensitization therapy (the introduction of allergens to the body by injection or tablet to reeducate the immune system to not respond in an allergic fashion). Desensitization is not an option for food allergies, according to Johnson.
The onset and severity of an allergy can seem mysterious, but as Johnson explains, “Allergy is like heat being added to water. You can add a certain amount of histamine release from the mast cell system and the body can absorb it and control it — just like heat can be added to water and nothing happens. But sooner or later the water is going to boil, and that’s equivalent to an anaphylactic [severe, potentially life-threatening] reaction. Everybody has a different threshold.”
A compromised immune system can further contribute to an emerging allergy, says Dr. Holly Ruocco, a chiropractor and owner of Advanced Allergy Center, a holistic practice in Salem, N.H.
“Our immune systems are being bombarded by chemicals, physical stress and emotional stress,” she says. “When the immune system is down, your body will begin to tag certain things as bad.”
Ruocco’s practice aims to remove stress from the nervous system in order to allow the body to function properly. She explains that when physical, emotional and chemical stressors — as well as hormonal changes and lowered resistance — challenge the immune system, the nervous system is called into action. During these times of stress, the nervous system may misread an otherwise harmless substance and perceive it as a threat, thus triggering the allergic reaction.
Advanced Allergy Center uses digital signals or micro-frequencies, associated with more than 160,000 potential allergens, sent through a cuff placed on the client’s arm, to test for possible allergies. If a negative response is detected, that same signal is sent back to the body accompanied by a positive stimulus to recondition the body’s allergic .
Awareness of one’s physical or emotional well-being when an allergy arises can be helpful in understanding the body’s susceptibility during times of weakened immunity, according to Ruocco.
When Merrimack Valley Magazine Managing Editor Emilie-Noelle Provost looks back to last fall, she now recognizes the role stress played in her first allergy experience.
“Last summer and fall were very, very stressful,” she says. “I’ve always thought it was an odd coincidence that the allergy showed up when it did.”
Provost was 42 when she began suffering from postnasal drip, a cough, sneezing, and puffy, watery eyes. She suspected seasonal allergies, but after attempting to alleviate the symptoms she concluded that wheat was to blame.
“I noticed one day after eating a handful of pretzels that my symptoms became immediately worse. It occurred to me that it might have something to do with wheat. I cut all wheat products out of my diet and was 100 percent better within 10 days,” says Provost, who has not tried to reintroduce wheat to her diet.
Deciding the best course of allergy treatment can be daunting, especially when faced with conflicting information, studies and reports. For example, restriction guidelines for food allergies issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) in 2000 are now believed to have had the opposite effect as was intended.
“It turns out that some well-meaning restrictions imposed by our own medical societies actually made the food allergy epidemic worse, as peanut allergy tripled in the United States from 1997-2008,” says Dr. Bryan D. Stone of Pentucket Medical, which has seven locations around the Merrimack Valley. “The AAP rescinded these guidelines in 2008, and new guidelines issued in December 2010 stress that food restriction is associated with increased risk of food allergy, and early food introduction reduces the risk.”
What led to the initial rise in food and environmental allergies remains a question. Stone refers back to the hygiene hypothesis.
“Basically the hygiene hypothesis says that our immune system is like a backstreet brawler looking for somebody to pick a fight with, and if it can’t find a suitable opponent it makes one up,” he says. “Since with good hygiene we have fewer microbes and germs for the immune system to deal with, otherwise harmless substances like pollen, dust mites and foods become the suitable opponents.”
Fortunately, viable treatment options are available. While the treatment of anaphylactic food currently is limited to strict avoidance, other severe reactions, such as stinging insect anaphylaxis, can now be treated with a highly successful, FDA-approved desensitization regimen, according to Stone.
Whether you are dealing with mild seasonal allergies or something severe, “You don’t have to suffer from allergies; we can help people with all kinds of problems,” Stone says. “I see people and ask why you weren’t here five years ago? I could have spared you five years of grief.”
Advanced Allergy Center
Lawrence, Newburyport, Haverhill, Georgetown, North Andover
New England Allergy, Asthma & Immunology
In Massachusetts: North Andover, Newburyport and Lowell.
In New Hampshire: Salem, Derry and Hampstead.