Friday, March 20, 2009

Are our precautionary measures making food allergies worse?

We deal with several food allergies and intolerances in our family -- fewer now than several years ago, but still. We've been gluten- and casein-free for about five years now and used to have to avoid, at one time or another, green beans, chicken, cashew nuts, corn, and soy as well.

The recent study on "curing" peanut allergies was interesting to me for several reasons. Are the scientists taking a page out of Homeopathy's handbook? Does their theory work for non life-threatening allergies as well? How about non-food allergies?

But the biggest question in my mind after reading about the study was this: By limiting our kids' exposure to certain, non life-threatening allergens, are we doing their immune systems more harm than good?

The discussion is getting heated in the comments section over at's Child Caring blog -- read the post and weigh in. But please note: I am not advocating challenging anyone's allergies in a non-hospital setting, I am not saying that nut-free zones in schools is a bad idea, and I am not equating scientific study with Homeopathy. I'm a parent with kids who have non life-threatening food allergies, and I'm wondering what their lives will be like 20 years down the road.
Here's the post. Read it an weigh in!

We deal with a few food allergies and intolerances in our household. One of our kids has been gluten- and casein-free now for about five years; that means no wheat, barley, US-processed (and possibly cross-contaminated) oats, MSG, modified food starch, or dairy of any kind (casein is a milk protein). When he was younger, we had to avoid eggs, soy, and corn (and anything containing corn derivatives, like corn syrup) as well. Yeah, that was fun; thank goodness he
grew out of some of those.

Another child is allergic to wheat and used to be allergic to cashews, green beans, and chicken. Yes, chicken. She outgrew that, too, but gets horrible, itchy eczema if she consumes wheat. A third is off gluten. The other two don't seem to be allergic to anything -- yet. None of them are anaphalactic to anything, thank goodness, but being GFCF can make eating out and packing lunches a bit of a challenge.

My youngest kids' preschool and daycare are nut-free zones (which, compared to avoiding gluten, is a cinch). But I read with interest the studies that came out earlier this week, about a possible therapy that seems to be helping kids overcome their peanut allergies by giving them daily, controlled doses of the very thing to which they're allergic.

"But over several years, the children's bodies learned to tolerate peanuts. Immune-system tests show no sign of remaining allergy in five youngsters, and others can withstand amounts that once would have left them wheezing or worse," the Associated Press reported.

Which led me to two thoughts: 1.) Are scientists taking a page out of homeopathy's handbook? And 2.) If very small -- practically microscopic -- encounters with allergens can eventually "teach" one's immune system to tolerate, rather than reject, certain substances, are our peanut-free classrooms causing problems rather than preventing them?

Please note: I am not suggesting that kids aren't really allergic to nuts, or anything else for that matter. My friend's child's face blows up like a balloon if he so much as rubs his eyes after touching someone else who's handled nuts -- food allergies are very real (though, thanks to an over-reliance on simple blood tests, misdiagnoses also seem to be on the rise). But as I scan product labels for the umpteenth time, looking for hints of gluten, I wonder... since our kids don't have celiac disease and their allergies aren't life threatening, is avoiding every last trace of gluten just making things worse for them in the long run?

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