Why are allergies becoming an epidemic?

It’s funny how things change. These days allergies are well understood as a genuine medical matter, they can affect anybody, and they can also be fatal if we’re not vigilant. What’s more, allergies seem to be getting more prevalent in western society.

Silver fern in the Ball’s Clearing reserve.

That’s totally turned around from when I was a kid. Back then, allergies were proof that somebody was weak, because strong people apparently didn’t get sick that way. Doctors’ advice was simple: all the allergy sufferer had to do was snap out of it and choose to be normal, and if the sufferer didn’t – well, it was proof of how weak a character they were. But if they did get a problem – well, suffering made them learn to be stronger, so if you got an asthma attack you just had to work through it and you’d become a better person.

Luckily that sort of thinking is long gone, along with the idiotic notion that if the sufferer doesn’t know the allergen is there, they can’t be affected by it (‘let’s hide the peanuts inside the cake and little Tommy won’t be affected, which proves allergies are a psychological weakness. Oh, Tommy just died…’)

Exactly why allergies have been on the rise in the past generation or so isn’t entirely clear. Part of it is an acceptance that, yes, allergies are a real issue. More are being picked up. But part of it also seems to be that the incidence of allergies, itself, is rising. A study recently showed that in the US, the incidence of childhood allergies rose 50 percent between 1997 and 2011, affecting 1 in 13. Another US study identified a 21 percent rise in peanut allergy since 2010. And we have to ask why.

As I understand it the jury’s out on the exact scientific reasons. There are many factors, including migration rates in which populations from one culture are exposed to the foods and products of another. But there are also several large fingers of suspicion pointing to what’s been happening in the past couple of generations. It’s not just to do with food, although that’s part of it – specifically, as more and more pre-packaged and processed food has been developed, and as more and more of it has also been marketed as ‘low fat’.

The problem is that a lot of this stuff may be ‘low fat’, but to make it flavoursome and give it the same texture and so forth as the same food with fat in it, a pile of chemicals have been added. And sugar. Often, lots of sugar.

Allergies, of course, aren’t restricted to food. They can be anywhere. Which brings me to the cleaning materials used around homes – many of them filled with chemically-generated perfumes that never saw the light of day in nature (even if they smell like they did) and a cocktail of preservatives and other chemicals suffusing the mix.

We are, in short, being bombarded with a relentless mix of trace chemicals in our food and our environments that our grandparents never encountered – all on the basis that ‘low fat’ is good for us and ‘anti bacterial’ is essential for proper hygiene. And odds are on that what we’re reacting to are those chemicals. I’ve heard stories of kids who were – allegedly – violently allergic to dairy. But as soon as they were put on full-fat butter, full-cream pasteurised but otherwise unprocessed milk, and so forth, the allergies to dairy went away. In short, the lactose and other dairy proteins weren’t the problem, it was what was being done to them – and the additives – to which the kids were allergic.

I suppose this is true for adults too. And now comes the interesting bit. Some of the papers I’ve read lately suggest that (a) the connection between cholesterol and heart attacks that created western ‘low fat’ mania was based on flawed research, (b) anti-bacterial and other high-tech cleaning concoctions don’t actually make a house ‘germ free’, but they do breed superbugs, because they’ll kill what they can kill – leaving the stuff they can’t kill to breed; and (c) recent medical analysis has argued, certainly in terms of asthma, that a cotton-wool upbringing without exposure to farm animals and other things can also be an issue.

It’s a combination, in short, of commercially over-processed foods built to sell into a market where ‘healthy food’ is a socially mediated concept; of commercial cleaning products sold into a market where ‘clean’ has been defined in ways that make society frightened of what it cannot see; and an attitude by which kids – and people generally – are kept away from ‘dirt’. So how did this thinking become so ubiquitous? Because it’s tied up with large organisations who manufacture these things, advertise them, and fund research into them. It’s in the interests of their directors and shareholders to keep selling these products – and so of course we’re told that we have to make our houses cleaner than an autoclave, eat what we are told is ‘healthy’, but without compromising taste or texture, and so forth. At the end of every one of these behaviours there seems to be somebody selling a product.

This is not a conspiracy as such; it’s an outcome of a philosophy and culture that has allowed it to emerge. A human thing. And it’s looking as if it’s a factor behind the current allergy epidemic – along with a lot of other things that have begun to emerge as ‘first world problems’ such as an increased incidence of diabetes and other immune-mediated health problems. And that’s quite apart from the disturbing rise in the number of super-bugs out there.


Copyright © Matthew Wright 2018

12 thoughts on “Why are allergies becoming an epidemic?

  1. When I was a young child cherry soda was a treat. Yet every time I drank some, I danced around like I was drunk. I quit drinking it because I didn’t like feeling that way. It turns out that I’m allergic to either a red or yellow food color that’s added to a lot of foods. I don’t remember any problems with Kool-Aid. But in my ‘older’ age I developed a persistent cough. It turns out that I’m allergic to Pepsi. I can drink 3 Cokes compared to only one Pepsi before the cough starts. I rarely drink sodas now, but will have one on occasion.


    1. I tend to avoid soda drinks myself, partly because they are all far too sugary for my taste – if anybody produced an unsweetened cola I’d probably drink it. But they are also chemical cocktails. It’s amazing where those colourings are added – margarine, most soda drinks, etc. And that’s without considering the salts added to just about every single packaged food as preservatives. I try and avoid the lot, not because of allergies – though I do need to avoid a few other things for that reason – but on the principle that it’s probably not good in the long run.


  2. Agree when you say people are obsessed with ‘keeping away’ from dirt. Not that we should be dirty but we have lost contact with the natural surroundings which has affected our immune system and on top of it there is excessive use of antibiotics.


    1. That massive use of antibiotics worries me, especially the industrial use in the pastoral and chicken industries, along with the way we’re sold ‘anti-bacterial’ soaps on the basis that if we don’t have them, we’re going to get diseased. But all we’re actually doing is breeding bugs these things can’t kill. And then what? It’s already happening, and sure, new antibiotics are on the horizon. But longer term, in the arms race between science and bacteria, I think I know which one will win…

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  3. I’m in my sixties. When I was about three or four, I developed asthma that turned out to be mostly triggered by allergies (but also by extreme heat and cold). Since then, some have eased off a bit but never gone away, and I’ve acquired a few more, along with many food intolerances. I was brought up in the days in which people were not overprotected against germs, etc. My sister doesn’t have any of these problems and was brought up the same way as me (though earlier). Both of us were exposed to chemicals in cleaning products, bleaches, furniture polishes, etc. There certainly wasn’t as many of the food fads, though a lot of our food was in tins, and also in packets (so, full of sugar and preservatives, even then) and many of the foods I can’t eat now, I ate with no problems then, which makes me think that something in the way the food is grown has caused the problems. I don’t know if it’s fertilizers, or pesticides or what. I do think something is changing within people’s body chemistry, though. What bothers me is the speed at which this is all happening. My own thought is that plastics have something to do with it, but that’s a bit of a ‘bee in my bonnet’ so to speak!

    By the way, I don’t remember any attitude to allergies of the type you do. I certainly don’t recall asthma or allergies being equated with being weak (of character, anyway. Weak of body, yes.) They were known about, what wasn’t done was a lot of testing when children were young. (My mother fought for me to be tested, and it didn’t happen til I was about ten or eleven. If it’d been done earlier I might have had a healthier childhood.) But I’m in the UK, you’re in New Zealand? Probably just cultural differences.


    1. The specific attitude issue while I was growing up was partly personal; we had a family doctor when I was a kid and a teenager who was basically useless. Anything he didn’t understand (which was just about anything medical, and yes, he was that worthless as a doctor) became due to ‘psychological problems’. That added quite a twist to the usual ‘weak body’ aspect which was more broadly prevalent in western society at the time (and had been for decades). There has certainly been a general (and overdue) change of attitude of late in terms of how allergies are received. As I understand the science, the more we learn about immune system issues just now, the more we discover there is to be learned – and it is far from simple. With a bit of luck this will bring relief, and hope, to many.

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