By Dr. Shawna Darou, ND
I receive many questions about the rise in food intolerances and allergies, in both adults and children lately, and people wonder if it is just our awareness that is increasing or if this is a new trend in health.
Even over the past 10 years in my practice, I am seeing a significant increase in food intolerances, especially to the staple foods: dairy, eggs, wheat, gluten, soy and corn. It’s great that our awareness is increased, but there is very clearly a rise in allergic conditions: food allergies, environmental allergies, eczema, asthma, endometriosis, hives, psoriasis, and autoimmune diseases.
I have a few theories as to why this is happening to such an alarming degree:
- Genetically modified foods – this is the main difference between food in North America compared to rest of the world, and I believe a significant factor in the high degree of allergies we experience here. Genetic modification of foods changes food so that there are more potential immunologically active proteins, hence increasing the potential for allergic reactions. Foods that are highly genetically modified include corn, soy and wheat especially.
- Changes in agriculture practices – our agricultural practices are different now compared to 100 years back, leading to less variation in plant species. This means that we are eating less variety in our diets, and if there is a slight immune reaction, it can build with frequent intake of an potentially allergic food. Our food is also less fresh and in many cases mass-produced. This likely changes the quality of what we are eating too.
- Not enough dietary variability – we have staples in our diet that tend to be overeaten – wheat, dairy, egg, the same meats, and then the presence of soy and corn in almost all packaged foods. Eating the same foods every day in large amounts can create bigger immune reactions.
- Too many antibiotics in childhood especially, which creates an imbalance in gastrointestinal flora. When our intestinal flora are out of balance from frequent antibiotic use especially, the gastrointestinal immune system is compromised and the likelihood of intestinal permeability increases. Interestingly, along these lines – the use of probiotics such as acidophilus species in pregnancy has been shown to reduce allergy risk in children.
- Environmental toxins – it’s no surprise that the increase in environmental toxins from air pollution to plastics to pesticides is causing stress on our immune systems, which can make us more prone to allergies.
- Hygiene hypothesis – studies have shown that in countries where there is more exposure to dirt and parasites, there is a much reduced risk of allergies. Perhaps early training of the immune system to deal with pathogens is important in its optimal development.
Food intolerances are associated with the following conditions:
- seasonal and environmental allergies
- skin conditions: eczema, psoriasis, acne, hives
- mood disorders, especially depression
- behaviour issues in children (inflammation in the body creates behaviour problems)
- autoimmune disease (Hashimotos thyroiditis, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and others)
- digestive problems – especially bloating and chronic constipation; also colic in babies
- vague symptoms such as fatigue, difficulty concentrating, swelling in the legs and ankles, and chronic headaches can also indicate food intolerances.
If you experience any of the above health issues, I would highly recommend testing for food intolerances. An accurate 96 food panel (blood test) is available at the office.
My experience is that when we reduce immune system stress by avoiding intolerant foods, there is a great reduction in overall body inflammation which allows immune-mediated health conditions to heal.
Since immune issues are clearly on the rise for reasons explained above, it is critical to first identify foods that you react to, but also to begin to advocate for better food quality so that we can stop this progression of allergies and intolerances especially in our children. Begin to eat ‘real food’, or as is commonly stated, ‘only food that your grandmother would recognize’. Our bodies are calling for a change. Perhaps the great rise in allergies and intolerances may actually a good sign – we are collectively rejecting foods that are harming us, in preference for un-modified ‘real’ food.