Q: I hate being allergic to peanuts. They can be hidden in so many products that it puts you always on the defensive and afraid to eat new things. I heard they are developing a new kind of peanut that may end this. Is this true? — Paul D., Texas
A: I heard that, too. According to a Fox News report, researchers from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University recently patented a new processed peanut, which they claim can reduce peanut allergens by up to 98 percent. At present, there is no date set for when this new product might hit grocery shelves. More testing is being called for, and winning Food and Drug Administration approval can be a bumpy road. Given that people with extreme sensitivity can die from an allergic reaction to ingesting nuts — or even traces of its protein — you have to wonder who among the most allergic might be willing to partake in such a clinical study.
It is said that more than 3 million people in this country suffer from some form of nut allergy. And don't be mistaken. Relief from this affliction does not seem to be at hand. In fact, it is quite the opposite. Allergies triggered by either food or the environment continue to significantly be on the rise in this country. Five percent of children are allergic to peanuts, milk or other foods, and it seems that with each generation, the reactions become more severe. At the same time, the prevalence of allergic disease and asthma has increased nearly threefold since the latter part of the 20th century. Today 1 in 5 American children have some form of respiratory allergy, and nearly 1 in 10 have asthma.
As someone who is getting up there in years, I wonder: What gives? People of my generation faced major infectious diseases unheard of in today's advanced societies — such as cholera, smallpox and polio — but the idea of having an allergy to peanuts was unheard of at that time. According to Heather Fraser, alternative medicine expert and author of "The History of the Peanut Allergy Epidemic," the peanut allergy epidemic has been created in millions of children over the past 20 years and tipped into critical mass in about 1998. This was the point when the first flood of allergic children entered kindergarten and began to be studied.
What was learned was shocking. It seemed to make no sense. The prevalence of the allergy increased with parental income, education and access to health care. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the prevalence of allergies increases to the highest rate among children whose family income is 200 percent above the poverty level. Today about half of Americans show some signs of allergic sensitization, increasing their risk of allergic disease. Conversely, in developing countries where peanut consumption is high, the allergy is virtually unknown. In Western cultures, children who had never eaten a peanut experienced reactions on initial exposure to the food. Children overseas who are likelier to be exposed to diseases build up protection against allergies. Immigrants to this country also have this resistance to allergies, yet the longer they reside in America the more allergic they become.
According to immunologists, allergies are a result of a body's immune system's misinterpreting a harmless protein, such as protein in dust or peanuts, as a threat. The source point of the problem may be genes, pollution or diet, but there seems to be clear evidence that modern hygiene designed to defeat infection can also act to promote an overactive immune system, which can make someone more susceptible to allergy and autoimmunity. Our immune system has evolved to expect parasites and to produce friendly microbes (bacteria), or what are known as suppressor cells, to combat disease. In a world with no parasites, the system becomes unbalanced. Without exposure to potential threats, the immune system looks for other things to fight. Some believe that more visits to the doctor and a higher frequency of antibiotics are creating this unbalance.
The proof of this can be found in what is being called "the farm effect." In researching my recent article on family farming, I stumbled upon this glaring fact: Growing up on a farm greatly cuts allergy risk. When people move away from the farm, they lose the microbes that keep allergies away and their immune system in check. The hypothesis suggests that cowshed microbes, plant material and raw food products protect farming children by positively stimulating their immune system throughout life, especially early on in life. In his book, "An Epidemic of Absence," Moises Velasquez-Manoff draws together hundreds of such studies to craft a convincing narrative of how the farm effect works. One study conducted by Erika von Mutius, an epidemiologist at the University of Munich, found that farms with the greatest array of microbes, including fungi, appear to be the most protective against asthma. It was also discovered that children born to mothers who work with livestock while pregnant and carried their newborns around with them during chores seemed the most invulnerable to allergic disease later.
The other side of the coin? Think of how contrary this is to the way we confront the onset of allergy season. The advice (and rightly so) is to stay indoors as much as possible and install a central air system in the home; keep windows in your home and car tightly sealed; wear a mask when outdoors; and take any number of antibiotics, and hope for little or no side effects.
I love the movies, and one of my favorite movies growing up was the 1953 version of H.G. Wells' "The War of the Worlds," starring Gene Barry. Steven Spielberg was equally taken by this film, crafting a remake in 2005. The novel upon which it was based was published in 1898. The premise in a nutshell (sorry for the pun): Aliens attack the Earth, and even our most powerful artillery barrages can't fend them off. It takes something much smaller to bring them down, something for which they have no defense — bacteria, common germs. Wells sums it up in his novel: "the humblest thing that God in his wisdom has put upon the earth."
Are we, those of us in the most advanced societies, now becoming aliens repelled by our own land? You have to wonder.
While researchers scramble to find a cure to the escalating allergy epidemic and get it into a bottle, in my next column I will address the following:
—We've weathered the polar vortex; now get ready for the pollen vortex. Are we facing the worst allergy season in 20 years?
—What are some of the alternative treatments that are complementary to traditional approaches and have been generating some relief for allergy sufferers?
—The first man-made mass allergic phenomenon? Serum sickness. What is the historical link between vaccination and mass allergy?
Write to Chuck Norris ([email protected]) with your questions about health and fitness. Follow Chuck Norris through his official social media sites, on Twitter @chucknorris and Facebook's "Official Chuck Norris Page." He blogs at http://chucknorrisnews.blogspot.com. To find out more about Chuck Norris and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.