According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, over 50 million Americans suffer with some sort of food-related allergy. This could be something as deadly as a peanut or shellfish allergy, or something as common as lactose intolerance. Symptoms of food allergies and intolerances are most common in babies and young children, and some disappear with age. However, allergies can appear at any time, and can also grow worse as we age.
What Are Food Allergies?
The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America reports that a food allergy “occurs when the body’s immune system sees a certain food as harmful, and reacts by causing allergic symptoms. Foods that cause allergic reactions are allergens, and there are different types of allergic reactions to foods.” Even very tiny amounts, so small that they cannot be seen by the human eye, can be enough to trigger an allergic reaction in those who suffer from this autoimmune condition.
What Are the Common Symptoms of Food Allergies?
The symptoms of allergic reactions to food can vary greatly from one person to another, as well as from food type to food type. Some of the most common include:
- Tingling in the mouth
- Swelling of the lips
- Abdominal pain
Note that the symptoms above are related to mild to moderate reactions. Severe reactions, called anaphylaxis, can have life-threatening symptoms, including:
- Airway constriction
- Serious drop in blood pressure
- Loss of consciousness
- Swelling of the throat
Note that anaphylaxis must be treated immediately – most people prone to these symptoms carry an epinephrine pen for this purpose. Not receiving treatment can lead to death.
What Are the Causes of Food Allergies?
While the symptoms can vary from food to food and person to person, the cause of food allergies is all the same – the body’s immune system is reacting to what it perceives as a serious threat. Whether we’re talking about an allergy to tree nuts, to shellfish, to cow’s milk, or to something else, it all comes down to an erroneous reaction by the body. It has nothing to do with the food in question.
With that being said, it’s important to know a bit more about the different types of allergic reactions to foods. There are two types in question – immunoglobulin E mediated (IgE), and non-IgE mediated. IgE mediated allergic reactions are what most of us think of – the immediate reaction to eggs, or to shellfish, for instance. Non-IgE mediated reactions do not involve the same antibody, and are less commonly seen.
A Note on Exercised Induced Food Allergies: There is another type of food allergy that does not see much discussion. In this situation, individuals may eat a particular type of food and be completely fine until they go to exercise. Then, they experience a serious allergic reaction. However, if they did not exercise for several hours after eating (ensuring digestion of the food), the reaction does not occur.
What Conventional Treatments Are Available for Food Allergy Sufferers?
Conventional treatments to food allergies involve two components:
Preparedness – Those with severe food allergies must be prepared at all times. The world can be a dangerous place for someone who could go into anaphylaxis just by touching a fragment of peanut shell. Carrying an Epi-pen, and being vigilant about the foods eaten and even areas where they spend time are all part of treatment and prevention.
Avoidance – Those with serious food allergies must strive to avoid their allergens whenever possible. This is particularly important for those who may develop life-threatening symptoms after exposure to an allergen.
Children with severe food allergies require not only their own personal knowledge about preparedness and avoidance, but also the help of adults and other children around them. Special precautions must be taken around children with any serious food allergies.
For those not experiencing anaphylaxis, there are several medications on the market that can help them cope with allergic reactions. Antihistamines can play a central role in treating symptoms, and bronchodilators can be used to treat allergic reaction-related breathing problems. However, note that there are no medications that can be taken prior to eating to make it safe to consume a known allergen.
How Might Stem Cell Therapy Help?
Stem cells are being researched for their ability to help heal and treat a dizzying array of diseases and medical conditions. Food allergies are high on the list. The building blocks of the human body, and the key to our regenerative healing system, stem cells have a great deal of promise and may be able to “rewire” the immune system to help it forget allergens and make it possible for those with food allergies not only to survive exposure, but to actually enjoy those once-dangerous foods.
Scientists in Australia were able to turn off allergic responses to food allergens in mice by using stem cell therapy. However, researchers warn that this may not work for humans, and more testing is necessary. Similarly, researchers at the University of Saskatchewan were able to turn off the allergic response to peanuts and shellfish in mice.
In both studies, the same technique was used. According to Dr. Steptoe, who led the Australian research team,
“We take blood stem cells, insert a gene which regulates the allergen protein, and we put that into the recipient. Those engineered cells produce new blood cells that express the protein and target specific immune cells, turning off the allergic response.”
Manipulation of stem cells for use in humans is not presently legal in the United States. Only unchanged cells may be used and even that in clinical practice helps significantly. Much of research is still needed.
Food allergies can be challenging to live with, even deadly. However, stem cell therapy may hold the key to a safe, healthy future. Nevertheless, the FDA has not approved any type of stem cell therapy in specific conditions, and all such treatments are considered experimental.