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Allergies, Asthma and Food Intolerance: It's NOT All in Your Head

by Melinda Hemmelgarn, M.S., R.D.

If you thought you were witnessing an unusual rise in food allergies among children, you're right. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report a whopping 18 percent increase in the number of young people with a food or "digestive" allergy between 1997 and 2007. (1)

Children with food allergies are also two to four times more likely to have asthma or other related allergic conditions such as eczema or "skin allergy." Unfortunately, children with co-existing food allergy and asthma may be more likely to experience anaphylactic reactions to foods. (1) No wonder parents are worried.

The chart below makes it easy to see the real rise in food-allergy- related hospitalizations over the past decade.

Average number of hospital discharges per year among children under age 18 years with any diagnosis related to food allergy: United States, 1998-2006.

Hospital discharges with a diagnosis related to food allergy increased significantly over time from 1998-2000 through 2004-2006.
Hospital discharges with a diagnosis related to food allergy increased significantly over time from 1998-2000 through 2004-2006.

Why the Rise?

The CDC's report fell short in explaining the cause(s) for the rise in food allergies. The increase could be related to heightened awareness and better medical reporting. Or perhaps our over-zealous attempts to be super-clean and germ-free have left our bodies more vulnerable to otherwise innocent invaders – this is the heart of the "hygiene hypothesis." (2)

Interestingly, and related, babies born to mothers with allergies, were significantly more likely to develop allergies if they were delivered by Cesarean section rather than vaginal birth. Researchers suspect a vaginal delivery exposes the baby to protective microbes that colonize the baby's gut. (3)

U.S. rates of C-Sections have skyrocketed over the past decades. In 2006, C-section rates rose to 31 percent, a record high, compared to less than 20 percent in 1996. (4) Just after World War II, C-section rates were lower still at five percent. Rising rates of obesity likely contribute to higher rates of C-sections. (5)

However, we must also acknowledge the elephant in the room: the accumulating effects of contaminants in our children's environment. (6,7).

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