We all question what could be the cause of the increase in food allergies, and all the other autoimmune diseases, as I did in The Great Debate. In researching this topic I was lucky enough to get a phone conversation with Dr. Robert Lawrence, of John Hopkins University; who was gracious enough to lend me his thoughts on the subject.
“We are still unclear about the reasons behind the rise in autoimmune diseases and food allergies. ” For example, there was a mouse experiment, where mice were inbred to a point of being identical; then group A. was placed via c-section into a germ-free environment, while group B was birthed vaginally and raised in the ‘germ’ environment with their mother. In this study, group A showed an early expression to developing diabetes, but it was an autoimmune type-so the thought was that the germ-free environment led to the failure to adequately prime the immune system. It is thought that the early exposure to germs help develop the immune system, but there is no definitive answer. ” This supports the Hygiene Hypothesis, that we live in too clean of an environment.
Along this line of thought consider the recent studies released about how the Amish have fewer allergies than other populations. This study suggests it’s the early exposure to the diverse potential allergens and pathogens on a farm trains the immune system to recognize them, but not overreact to the harmless ones, the “Farm Effect.” As my friend likes to say, “God made dirt, and dirt don’t hurt!” Dr. Lawrence mentioned how “the Amish sustain on a more pure food intake”, raw milk, and whole foods. Pure food, not processed, unnaturally high sodium, laced with high fructose corn syrup, and preservatives. When we consider the American diet over the past 40 years, [tv dinners, take out pizza, Hamburger Helper, Kraft mac & cheese, Spaghetti Os, cereals] in comparison to the typical Amish diet, [homemade breads, natural meats, grains, produce]- how can we not ask if the health difference is not directly linked to our diets? Dr. Lawrence thought this theory logical, but near impossible to build evidence to prove, requiring such a broad spectrum to study!
Dr Lawrence wrote for the Atlantic: “Notably in the debate over the misuse of antibiotics in food animal production is that the medical and public health communities have long agreed on the science. Decades of research have demonstrated that misuse of these drugs by the food animal industry promotes the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that can contaminate the food we eat and the air, water, and soil surrounding the industrial operations that produce these animals.”
Dr. Lawrence mentioned another possible culprit, Atrazine, as just one of the many toxic pesticides that can be causing havoc on autoimmune systems. There are levels of Atrazine found in the water supply systems across the country in parts per million or parts per billion, which have been scientifically proven to cause defects, such as frogs with 6 legs, hermaphroditic small mouth bass and frogs. From an article on the subject, Dr. Hayes of UC Berkeley: “when you have studies all over the world showing problems with atrazine in every vertebrate that has been looked at – fish, frogs, reptiles, birds, mammals – all of them can’t be wrong.” From Wikipedia: “Atrazine was banned in the European Union (EU) in 2004 because of its persistent groundwater contamination. In the United States, however, Atrazine is one of the most widely used herbicides, with 76 million pounds of it applied each year, in spite of the restriction that used to be imposed. Its endocrine disruptor effects, possible carcinogenic effect, and epidemiological connection to low sperm levels in men has led several researchers to call for banning it in the US”. Dr Lawrence said “We are living in a toxic soup- literally! There are 10,000 new chemicals introduced every year!” Many of these are endocrine disruptors, estrogen, progesterone, etc. Look at the speed these are introduced, along with the increase of autoimmune diseases and food allergies over the last 30 years, and add to that, the past 40 years of exposure to BPAs in our bottles, plastics, and lining our canned goods. “There are LOTS of potential culprits, maybe synergies, small amounts of Atrazine, a dash of BPAs, a bit of fire-retardant exposure, some fluorinated compounds [PFCs, PFOs], all combining with the results that one person will develop thyroid disease, [or Diabetes, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Multiple Sclerosis], the other food allergies. ” One being a hyper-response of the autoimmune system, where the body attacks itself; the other causing an over-reaction to external triggers, be it food, cold, pollen, animals, etc.
We may never know the cause for the rise in food allergies, and all the other auto-immune diseases. There are more questions than answers, and many mysteries to be solved in this field of study. Some encouraging new lines of research being examined are the studies being done on the characterization of the gut bio-dome, the make-up of bacteria, in our gastrointestinal systems. Bacteria on us or in us outnumber each cell by 100 or so, these bacteria have evolved with us, and serve purposes in digesting and making vitamins. Having your ‘flora’ out of balance can cause a multitude of problems, we are only beginning to understand. A good example is C-Diff, elderly patients who get sick, are treated with antibiotics, and end up with inflammation and toxic colon issues and having to have emergency surgeries. Another angle is “helminth therapy” which is being looked at to treat EoE, [Eosinophilic Esophagitis] where microscopic worms are introduced into the gut, the general idea is that our body’s immune system busies itself fighting them off, and stops attacking the food we eat. [Be sure to see this month issue of Living Without “Fishing for a Cure” article for more on this!] What is clear is there is a relationship between the flora and bacteria that evolved with us over millions of years, our diets, and our immune systems; and we have only just begun to comprehend it all!