On a clear but cool night, a group of a dozen or so close friends spreads out in the small backyard of a Long Beach Island summer house. The conversation ricochets between barbs, as it tends to among such tight circles, with one target, in particular, cropping up at regular intervals: Lesley’s face. Since late afternoon, the left side of it has grown noticeably swollen. There wasn’t much concern among the group because Lesley Hopf was allergic to practically everything. And she weathered it all with grace. After so many years together, everyone knew this. Lesley, of course, knew it, too. But this was something different, she sensed. Not wanting to disrupt an otherwise pleasant evening, though, she kept her increasing panic mostly to herself. Then around dawn, while everyone else was still asleep, she woke her boyfriend (now husband) and they packed up and left for the emergency room.
She was treated with Benadryl, administered intravenously. In the weeks that followed, Lesley, who lives in Flemington, N.J. submitted to a battery of tests. To this day, several years later, she still doesn’t know what triggered that particular allergic reaction. The leading culprits appear to be her sunblock or a dye in the macaroni and cheese she ate that afternoon. (Kraft announced in April 2015, 80 years after its invention, that it was removing all artificial preservatives and synthetic colors from its Macaroni & Cheese.)
Guarded as Lesley had learned to live her life, it seemed to protect her only so much. She was born with allergies to dairy and nuts and eczema that raged so furiously during periods of her childhood that her parents sent her to bed with oven mitts to keep her from scratching herself to the point of bleeding.
“My parents tried a lot of different things when I was young,” Lesley says, including steroid creams, UV therapy (where they’d plant her outside for an afternoon, thinking, apparently, that the sun would lessen her symptoms) and Chinese herbal formulas. “I had to drink this black soup every day. It was disgusting; it tasted like dirt.”
Lesley’s greater concern now, however, is her 3-year-old son, Parker, who’s already showing similar traits. In his first four months, he never slept more than two hours at a time, as it turned out, because he’s allergic to dairy. He’s also allergic to nuts, and he’s had some severe bouts of eczema.
“We try to be really careful and to get him to try different things, but it’s hard when he’s afraid,” Lesley says. “Like, he won’t touch an egg anymore because he knows that he had an allergic reaction.”
Nothing to Sneeze At
Although just about any food is capable of causing an allergic reaction for any
individual, there are 8 foods that cause the majority of reactions. These foods are:
If the ambiguity surrounding her own fluctuating sensitivities and remissions wasn’t frustrating enough for Lesley, there’s the dichotomy within her own family. For all of Parker’s allergic reactions, Lesley’s other son, Grayson, age 5, has moved through his young life without interruption, aside from mild seasonal allergies. Which speaks to the overwhelming uncertainty that still plagues the field. The American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology estimates that about one in five Americans suffers from some kind of allergy, though less conservative estimates run as high as one in three. Perhaps even more concerning than the frequency is the sudden escalation. Anthony Ricketti, MD, at Mercer Allergy & Pulmonary Associates in Trenton, was board certified in allergy and immunology in 1983. Back then, he says, “food allergy was like a nothing, in terms of your training.” Within the last decade, the rate of people diagnosed with food allergies has doubled. The reasons why remain largely hypothetical.
Ricketti suspects that the increase in seasonal allergies stems from climate change, which has triggered higher concentrations of pollen for longer-than-usual durations. “So this probably plays some role for the people who, in the past, have felt minor symptoms during the spring or late-summer seasons and think it was just a minor cold that lasts two or three weeks—now are suffering to a greater degree and coming in for clinical attention,” he says.
But, why, increasingly, adults are being diagnosed with food allergies, he can’t say. Wendy Warner, MD, has some ideas, but they’re not openly discussed among mainstream medicine. Warner is board certified in both obstetrics/gynecology and holistic medicine and the author of Boosting Your Immunity for Dummies. “For a lot of people who think they have food sensitivities, it’s not the food; it’s the pesticides, specifically glyphosate, which is commonly found in Roundup,” she says. “I think our immune systems, in general, are so much more overtaxed than they used to be. Along with the rise in allergies, there’s also a huge rise in autoimmune conditions, and I think they are related.”
While our bodies are busy figuring out what to do with any number of foreign—and usually toxic—substances at any given time, they’re also coping, she says, with another onslaught: our anxieties. “I check people’s stress hormones regularly, and they are typically out of balance for people who have allergy symptoms or atopic dermatitis or any kind of immune imbalance,” Warner says. “And the worse the stress hormones get out of balance, the worse the immune response.”
A ray of hope
A recent series of studies finally drew a consensus, which, in turn, generated some much-needed momentum for treatment protocols. After years of conflicting advice, it now appears (once and for all) that the early introduction of not just peanuts but all foods is the right course for preventing the development of food allergies. In fact, years of prescribing just the opposite are blamed now for the recent spike in peanut allergies.
“I think that the main focus now would be to try to build up tolerance early,” Ricketti says of curbing food allergies. Meanwhile, researchers are working to remedy the lost generation of peanut eaters. The National Institutes of Health reported last October that “a wearable patch that delivers small amounts of peanut protein through the skin shows promise for treating children and young adults with peanut allergies, with greater benefits for younger children.” The report stemmed from the first-year results of an ongoing clinical trial.
Similarly, Warner believes that the proliferation of antibacterial products has handicapped our immune systems. “Children, when they’re growing up, didn’t get exposed to anything. And that’s the way our immune system learns what’s OK and what’s not OK,” she says. “If you never get exposed to it in the first place, then it’s sort of like being a 3-month-old again, when your immune system doesn’t
know what to do with it, so it gets overwhelmed.”
Daunting as the landscape may be—stress, chemicals, discord among our doctors—the most commonsense practices for reducing our vulnerability are being ignored, Warner says.
“I think what we need to do is rethink how we’re living our lives,” she says. Namely, eat real food, slow down, and exercise more. “If more people just did more of that, it would fix a whole lot of the medical things that I deal with every day. Because it’s really—it’s about the underlying process.”
While Ricketti does not foresee a permanent desensitization treatment, a.k.a. a magic pill, he is optimistic about the state of allergy research. “We’ve made significant progress in dealing with drug allergies, in desensitization protocols for certain drugs, especially penicillin,” he says. “And I do see a time when we will come up with more effective therapies to really get to the bottom and root causes of some of these different issues.”