Parents of children with food allergies are hungry for solutions.
Since 1960, the rate of food allergies among children has more than doubled — from 3% to more than 7% — with 5.6 million kids in the US today suffering from one of countless potential food allergens.
And that’s left moms and dads of kids with allergies feeling anxious — and a little misunderstood, according to Dr. Rania Nasis, founder of forthcoming food allergy care platform Super Awesome Care.
“The number one thing we hear from parents is that people just don’t take it seriously,” Nasis told The Post. “These kids are missing out on a lot of things just because there isn’t that general acceptance and awareness.”
But help is on the way. Cutting-edge research has given scientists a better understanding of food allergies — and viable therapies — than ever before. Read on for bite-sized breakthroughs from this field.
There are nine major food allergens
Food allergies can cause a number of scary symptoms, ranging from rashes, nausea and vomiting to anaphylaxis and death in the most extreme cases. It’s no wonder that parents are wary of expanding their children’s diets!
But rest assured, the vast majority of food allergies can be attributed to nine ingredients: Milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, crustacean shellfish, wheat and soy. In these cases, the immune system is reacting aggressively to a specific protein found in the food.
Other presumed food allergies may boil down to pesky pollens, according to NYU allergist Dr. Clifford Bassett, author of “The New Allergy Solution.” Those who experience itchy throat and mouth discomfort from certain fruits or vegetables may be experiencing a “manifestation of their seasonal allergies with a protein in the pollen,” which is annoying, but not life-threatening, he told The Post.
Our abundantly sanitized lifestyles are making allergies worse
The so-called “hygiene hypothesis,” sometimes called the “microbial exposure hypothesis,” suggests that innovative and overzealous hygiene practices are making us, paradoxically, more vulnerable to allergies — and, to some extent, that’s true.
But that’s no excuse to skip hand-washing, docs say. Especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, Bassett told The Post, “[It] would be inappropriate to tell people ‘Don’t sanitize.’” The fact is, the world is much less diseased place thanks to aggressive hygiene — and that’s a good thing.
Moms can’t take the blame for this one
For years, some C-section moms have blamed themselves for their kids’ food allergies, believing that babies born this way are exposed to too many presurgery antibiotics, and then “miss out” on certain protective microbes that they would have been exposed to through the birth canal.
But studies published earlier this month refute this connection. Associate professor Rachel Peters of Australia’s Murdoch Children’s Research Institute in Melbourne, and author of one such study, told The Post, “We believe that there’s sort of a window of opportunity for [preventing] food allergies, [and it’s unlikely to be just] this one factor that occurs at birth that sets you up on a pathway for having allergies. There’s likely to be a lot of other things involved with regards to microbial exposure.”
The role of the microbiome is mysterious, but major
Scientists are confident that if the microbiome — the unique make-up of microorganisms living on the skin and inside the body — has a lot to do with developing food allergies. And counterintuitively, kids who are exposed to more germs early on are actually less likely to develop lifelong food allergies. Protective factors include growing up with older siblings, or even with pets, researchers say.
Milk allergy and lactose intolerance are not the same thing
The triggers and symptoms may be similar — usually abdominal pain and diarrhea — but the cause is totally different. A milk allergy is the result of an overactive immune system that targets certain dairy proteins, while an intolerance develops due to the absence of a necessary digestive enzyme, lactase, to help break down milk molecules in the gut.
Why does it matter? While a true milk allergy can be deadly, an intolerance can be addressed with an over-the-counter supplement, such as Lactaid. If you’re bloating from dairy, a doctor can help you figure out if you should avoid it altogether, or take a trip to the local pharmacy. “This is all we do throughout the world as allergists,” said Bassett. “We really sleuth, and do a lot of detective work to try and identify the proximate cause.”
Pediatricians now want kids to try potential allergens — ASAP
The old way of thinking was to prevent potentially deadly allergic reactions by avoiding triggering foods at a young age. But, five years ago, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases flipped the script, urging parents to — cautiously — feed their babies small doses of peanuts and other common allergens before they turn 6 months old, even if they’re already showing signs of immune sensitivities, such as eczema and other allergies. The hope is that this practice could help beat allergy development to the punch.
And it seems to be working. A study published in the January issue of the Lancet found that small doses of peanut flour mitigated severe symptoms in children aged 1 to 3 years with an existing peanut allergy, and induced remission of the allergy in 21% of kids.
Food allergy remission is more achievable than ever before
The US Food and Drug Administration recently approved Palforzia for the treatment of peanut allergies in kids ages 4 to 17 with advanced peanut allergies. It’s a capsule containing small amounts of peanut protein that, over time and with consistent use, can help lessen the body’s reactions to peanuts. It doesn’t work in every case — and users should still carry their EpiPens — but this oral immunotherapy approach is promising. In the future, researchers hope it could be used for the treatment of virtually any food allergy.