Why are we allergic to things?

The basic structure of immunoglobulins, the villain and arch-nemesis of those with allergies. Original image from the University of South Carolina School of Medicine.
The basic structure of immunoglobulins, the villain and arch-nemesis of those with allergies. Original image from the University of South Carolina School of Medicine.

To many people, the world is toxic. One in five Americans now has an allergy of some kind, according to the University of California Los Angeles. While some of these are mild enough to just upset the stomach, they can range to moderate and severe to deathly—in some people, all it takes is being in the same room as an allergen and they react.

And the incidence seems to be increasing. Of the 20 percent of Americans that have a food sensitivity, 40 percent have a severe reaction. The most common allergy is to peanuts, followed by dairy and shellfish. However, an increasing one is the sensitivity to gluten, a protein found in wheat products, a staple in diets worldwide. More and more Americans are claiming gluten intolerance and are opting for wheat-free products, often citing genetically modified crops as the reason for increased toxicity.

However, this may or may not be the actual reason. Many scientists are leaning toward something called “the hygiene hypothesis” as the root of increasing allergy prevalence. The concept has been around for some years now, but there has been no collective scientific agreement on whether it is acceptable as theory or not. Essentially, it concludes that the way we raise our children to be hyper-clean—wiping their hands with alcohol wipes, using antibacterial soap, pumping hand sanitizer onto the hands of kindergarteners multiple times per day, etc. Constantly eliminating natural bacteria from our systems has changed the way we interact with particular substances from an early age, hampering our abilities to process said materials, the hypothesis states.

Whatever the cause, the effect is apparent: Millions of people cannot eat or even be around particular foods. So to compensate, we have alternatives. And on August 11, several scientists announced a method to create an allergy-free cashew. Christopher Mattison, a specialist in the study of nut allergy at the Allergy/Immunology Research Center at the University of North Texas, will present his findings at the American Chemical Society annual meeting this week, explaining how his team has been exploring how to alter the proteins in cashews to allow those with sensitivities and allergies to eat them.

When someone with an allergy eats a cashew, antibodies in their immune systems called immunoglobulin (IgE) attach to the proteins in the nuts and attack them like foreign bodies in the immune system. The severity of the allergy depends on how many antibodies are released when the body detects the substance. Mattison’s team used sodium sulfite to change the shape of the protein receptors, making it harder for the immunoglobulin to find and latch onto them, reducing or eliminating the reaction.

Strangely enough, while sodium sulfite is largely hypoallergenic, it does increase reactions in about 5 percent of asthmatics, according to Livestrong. (Sodium sulfite is a preservative usually found in wines and other fermented foods.) However, its effect on the nuts seems to be largely positive, and Mattison said there is potential to expand to other kinds of nuts.

If only they could do the same for people with cat and dog allergies.

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