Western allergy trends: a rise in diagnostics or poor lifestyles?

western allergyCC: Ola Mischenko at Unsplash

Western allergy trends often receive a bad press. With a rise in the number of celebrities claiming a gluten-free diet has transformed their lives, more people are laying claim to non-existent allergies than ever. That’s not to say that genuine cases don’t exist. But there is a big difference between anaphylaxis and a niggling feeling that dairy may make you feel bloated.

More recently, scientists have begun looking at why Western allergy trends are changing so rapidly. And by changing I mean more of us seem to have them. Between 1995 and 2016 the number of people with a peanut allergy in the UK increased fivefold. If you have ever met anybody with a peanut allergy you will know just how genuine their condition is.

The latest research is suggesting that the way we live our lives in the West is changing how our immune systems respond to food. But is this true? And what is the difference between a ‘real’ and ‘fake’ allergy?

Understanding the difference between a trendy Western allergy and a real one is crucial

If we’re going to realistically measure the rise in Western allergy cases we need to understand which are real and which are fake. One of the better examples of this is a gluten insensitivity. Gluten insensitivity is not the same as having celiac disease. When you have celiac disease your body will trigger an incredibly uncomfortable (and occasionally fatal) response to you eating gluten.

In contrast, a gluten insensitivity involves experiencing vague symptoms in response to eating gluten. The person with the sensitivity won’t have undergone a TTG test or colonoscopy to confirm their condition. Although they feel more comfortable after ditching gluten, this probably has more to do with adopting a healthier diet overall.

Knowing the difference between the two allows scientists to accurately measure who has an allergy and who doesn’t. They can then use that information to shape their research.

Why are more allergies developing in the West?

One argument is that allergies are commoner in the West and rising significantly because of better diagnostics. While this would explain certain allergies, such as lactose intolerance, it doesn’t come close to explaining why peanut allergies are increasing. Peanut allergies are usually so severe that better diagnostics wouldn’t make much of a difference in their discovery.

If we ignore better diagnostics, there are other explanations worth considering. The first is one that scientists have known about for a long time. One key blood cell that plays a role in allergic reactions is the eosinophil. In developed nations, eosinophils spend more time focusing on parasites and, therefore, don’t have much of a chance to play a part in allergic reactions. In the West we have become increasingly more hygienic, possibly to the point where we’re not helping our immune systems. While it isn’t wise to go out and eat parasites, this may be why other nations don’t suffer as much as we do.

Another theory is that we have become too tentative in the way we approach introducing allergens to children. There was once a trend for cutting out peanuts and shellfish during pregnancy, but this was largely based on junk science. Now we’re moving toward the idea that introducing allergen foods to children during weaning is appropriate.

Finally, there’s the idea that we don’t get enough Vitamin D. In the United States, Vitamin D deficiency has doubled over two decades. There’s a strong link between eczema and Vitamin D, especially among those with certain genetic traits.

While allergies continue to rise, researchers are focusing on how to minimise their impact. It’s unlikely that we can wipe them out entirely, but preventing them could become a stronger possibility.

About the Author

Laura McKeever
Laura has been a freelance medical writer for eight years. With a BSc in Medical Sciences and an MSc in Physician Assistant Studies, she complements her passion for medical news with real-life experiences. Laura’s most significant experience included writing for international pharmaceutical brands, including GSK.