For many people, an allergy to a particular food or substance is something they’ve learned to deal with throughout their lives. Whether it’s nothing more than the relatively mild seasonal allergies that cause the sniffles or a more life-threatening one, sufferers have generally found ways to manage their condition and not let it hold them back from living their lives to the fullest.
But that doesn't mean that allergies aren't annoying, or outright dangerous.
While the severity of these allergies can vary from person to person, trying to avoid all contact with known allergens can still be a considerable problem to the sufferer. Between trying to navigate meals out with friends, to well-meaning but ultimately ignorant people serving them foods with these potentially-lethal ingredients in them, trying to stay safe can undoubtedly become both stressful and anxiety-inducing.
But all this could be about to end. According to a new study published in the January 2022 edition of The Lancet, individuals with a peanut allergy can possibly outgrow them later in life, provided they engage in carefully regimented exposure therapy at a young age.
What Causes Allergies?
For millions of people across the globe, some of the most commonly consumed foods we eat are staples in their diets. Certain foodstuffs such as dairy, soy, wheat, and peanuts not only provide us with essential nutrients like vitamins and minerals, but they can also help us remain healthy and strong through complex carbohydrates, healthy fats, and complete protein sources they offer.
Yet to those allergic to any of these foods, it can quickly spell danger in the form of urticaria (hives), shortness of breath and wheezing, and even anaphylaxis. While rare, this could quickly become lethal, especially if the allergic individual does not have epinephrine (also known as an “epi-pen”) on hand to treat the reaction. But what causes these reactions in the affected percent of the population with allergies?
In brief, allergies are an immune response gone out of hand. When the body believes it has been given something harmful, it ramps up its production of a particular antibody called “immunoglobulin E” (IgE) to combat it. In turn, this leads to the symptoms of an allergic reaction. Scientists aren’t quite sure just yet what causes the body to react this way, but it is largely believed to be genetic, with eczema and asthma being closely related comorbidities.
Curiously, allergies have been on the rise in recent years, and one hypothesis maintains that our more sanitary lifestyles have contributed to it. While cleanliness is certainly not bad in and of itself, it could possibly be contributing to the growing number of allergic individuals. Scientists believe that exposure to germs at a young age can help build our immune systems, and excessive hygiene is proving to be detrimental in this regard. Another possibility, especially related to pollen allergies, is that we've been cultivating more plants that can produce allergies -- and focusing on the wrong plant sex as well.
Another puzzling cause of one type of allergy has been traced back to tick bites and Lyme disease, which have been shown to cause a serious reaction to red meat (called alpha-gal syndrome, or AGS). For those who suspect they may have contracted this disease, taking an at-home Lyme disease test can help determine possible exposure to this allergen-inducing infection. In general, if you're suffering any unusual symptoms, it's best to get tested -- whether it's a hormone test or an allergy test, it's usually a worthy investment.
How Immunotherapy Can Help
Though it does bear a considerable risk to the allergic individual, exposure therapy – or immunotherapy – has shown remarkable promise in preventing peanut allergies when introduced at a young age. Researchers have discovered that the sooner a child is exposed to peanuts, the better their likelihood of avoiding a more serious reaction later in life can be.
The study, known as the IMPACT trial, enlisted 150 children between the ages of one and three years old. During the thirty-week period, the participants were given a trace amount of peanut protein powder, which was designed to help build up their tolerance to peanuts. It’s important to note that only subjects who had a reaction at a half gram of peanut protein powder were permitted to enroll in the study.
Over the duration of the study, the researchers steadily titrated up the amount of peanut flour served to the participants, until they reached the maximum dose of five grams. The subjects were then told to avoid all peanut products for a period of six months, at which point they were fed another five-gram serving of peanut protein. Any participant who did not have a reaction was offered another eight grams on a different day.
The results of the study showed that following the treatment, nearly 75 percent of the subjects were able to ingest an average of sixteen peanuts in total. A staggering 71 percent of the children became desensitized to peanuts, compared to just 2 percent in the control group. This tolerance was maintained in nearly 20 percent of the participants six months after therapy was stopped.
Is a Cure On the Horizon?
It’s important to note that this study did have its limitations and should be taken with a grain of salt. For instance, participants who had the best prognosis of overcoming their allergy were the ones who had a more mild form of it, as well as those who started their treatment at a younger age. Despite this, though, it does show a considerable amount of promise that a cure for allergies can be forthcoming.
Furthermore, the definition of remission was also fairly specific. To be considered a successful outcome, the participant needed to be able to ingest a mere 5 grams (or the equivalent of about one and a half tablespoons of actual peanut butter) of peanut powder without a reaction. It is also unclear if the participants will remain allergy-free throughout their lifetimes, as well, as the study ended in 2015.
Until now, people with allergies simply had to find ways to manage them, and all existing medications are only meant to minimize the severity of the reaction. If researchers can find a way to completely eradicate a peanut allergy in a person, what other allergies can be cured? The ability to provide affordable, mass-produced, and nutrient-dense foods to those in need – without the fear of an allergic reaction – can be revolutionary.
At this point, it’s best to remain cautiously optimistic. Not all participants were able to experience complete remission from their allergies, which means that relapse is a very real possibility. And with many allergic reactions becoming more severe after repeated exposure, self-treating is generally not advised. However, the prospect is undoubtedly exciting, as is the idea of a life without allergies for those who suffer from them.