Why everybody is suddenly allergic to everything

If you haven't noticed, the allergy rate in the Western world is getting kind of nuts. So what’s going on? For one thing, we’ve been parenting our kids all wrong

Tristin Hopper, National Post 4 minute read December 17, 2019

In this episode of Everything Should Be Better, Tristin Hopper explains why allergy rates are so high among some groups and not among others. Watch the video above, or read the transcript below.

Here’s a fun fact about the Amish: they don’t really get allergies.

That’s right: While you city dwellers are making a lunch run for dairy-free, gluten-free, sugar-free, nut-free vegan kale wraps, most Amish can chow down on whatever. A

2012 study of Amish children in Indiana

found that only 7 per cent had some kind of allergy sensitization, compared to

36 per cent of American children as a whole


This is an important fact because, if you haven’t noticed, the allergy rate in the Western World is getting kind of nuts.

In the U.S. shellfish allergies have gone up 40 per cent in just the last 15 years. And nut allergies have quadrupled. In the U.K., hospital admissions for allergies have gone up 500 per cent since 1990, with British children also undergoing a five-fold increase in rates of peanut allergies.

So what’s going on? Why are the Amish happily chugging milk and breathing pollen while the rest of us can’t so much as look at a plate of pad thai?

For one thing, we haven’t been parenting our kids right. For a long time, the advice was to not expose your kids to potentially harmful allergens until they were older. Parents were told not to feed their kids peanuts until age three, for instance.

Now, it turns out that this was all wrong: By denying children early exposure to allergens, it was actually causing them to become allergic.

One particularly illuminating study looked at the peanut allergy rates among Jewish children in Israel and Jewish children in the U.K. They’re both Jewish, so allergy rates should be about the same, right? Wrong. The British kids had a rate of peanut allergy 10 times higher than the Israeli kids. The reason? Israelis were chowing down on peanuts as babies, whereas Brits weren’t getting peanuts until they were toddlers. The result was that by the time many Brits got their first taste of peanut, their bodies couldn’t handle it.

It turns out there’s a brief window of time after you’re born in which your body is super receptive to unfamiliar foods and won’t react to them. Miss that window and, boom, you’re allergic.

That’s why groups like the United States’ National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases are now advising parents to load up their kids with potentially allergenic food, including peanut butter, before the age of six months.

Another explanation for our now-spiking allergy rates is called the “hygiene hypothesis.” The gist is that by living super-sanitized HEPA filter, Purel-soaked lives, we are becoming increasingly fragile people unable to stomach even our own food.

Some of the most compelling evidence is that farm children are consistently less allergenic than children living in cities.

The same is true of rich countries versus poor countries.

A 2007 study in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine found that the more developed the country, the higher were the rates of allergy-induced asthma. Of the places probed by the study, the city with one of the lowest rates of allergic asthma was Mumbai, India, a place known for many things, with cleanliness not being one of them.

The phenomenon has even been noticed among migrants. Immigrants from a low-allergy country like Turkey or Egypt move to a western country like Canada or the United States. Then, when they have their first kids in the West, those kids are just as wracked with allergies and asthma as the other kids in their playschool.

Allergies are caused by your immune system mistaking harmless things for pathogens and shifting into high gear to battle it. The hygiene hypothesis holds that those of us in the West aren’t giving our immune systems a proper workout, so it’s essentially shorting out and treating everything like a threat.

You’re never going to completely get rid of allergies. Even Amish kids, Israeli babies and Mumbaikars have some allergies among them, but there’s obviously a reason that allergy rates everywhere else are skyrocketing.

The evidence so far seems to indicate that grandpa was right — a little dirt is good for you. Eat dirt off the floor, let the dog give you kisses and let your baby inhale some dust.

We might be too clean for our own good.


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