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The allergy epidemic

 Sudden rise in childhood allergies, in particular food allergies, and ways to reduce the risks.

Allergic diseases, including eczema, asthma, hay fever and food allergies, affect about 30 to 40 per cent of the world’s population and, according to the World Allergy Organisation, it’s children who bear the “greatest burden of this epidemic”.

While there is no one clear cause for the high allergy rates, contributing factors include environmental pollutants, dietary changes and increased hygiene, says Dr Susan Prescott, a Perth-based specialist in childhood allergy and immunology and author of The Allergy Epidemic – A Mystery of Modern Life.

And nowhere is this more evident than Australia. “We have the highest levels of allergies in the world,” Prescott says. “In the last decade, Australia has seen a five-fold rise in serious (and potentially life-threatening) food allergies in preschoolers.”

An ongoing study by the Melbourne Children’s Research Institute, titled ‘HealthNuts’, has found that one in 10 one-year-olds has an allergic reaction to foods. Unlike food intolerance, which is an enzyme reaction, food allergy is an immunological reaction to a protein or substance in the environment and symptoms can vary from being mild (rash or skin swelling) to potentially life-threatening (known as anaphylactic).

Prescott says that while rates in childhood asthma and hay fever have been high for decades, it is this recent “second wave” of food allergies that is alarming. She says 90 per cent of food allergies are caused by hen’s eggs, cow’s milk, soy, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, shellfish and fish, and while children tend to grow out of some, others (like nuts and shellfish) are more persistent.

“This generation has caught us by surprise and we are seeing that many of the most common food allergies, such as egg and milk, are tending to persist a bit longer than they used to as well,” she says. “So we are not just seeing a rise in the rate of disease and the severity, but it is also becoming more persistent.”

Possible causes

While the exact cause of this sudden spike in childhood allergies is unknown, research points to a number of contributing lifestyle and environmental factors, including increased hygiene, environmental pollutants, reduced sunlight exposure (as a result of increased screen time), genetics and modern dietary patterns (with children consuming less fresh fruit, vegies, and foods containing omega-3 fats and dietary fibre).

We really have to understand what it is about our modern environment and lifestyle that is driving this process because it’s just too quick to be genetic [alone],” Prescott says.

“We are progressively eating less fresh fruit and veg, and more processed food, and our intake of saturated fats has increased while omega-3 consumption has decreased.”

Compared with previous generations, Prescott says our modern diet also includes less dietary fibre, a natural anti-inflammatory which helps to promote favourable bacteria in the gut. (See ‘Complementary Strategies’ for more on diet.)

While some influencing factors, such as family history, are unavoidable, there are steps we can take to help reduce the risks of childhood allergies. Overall, Prescott says it’s a commonsense approach, including: “Not smoking during pregnancy or around children; breastfeeding, where possible, for at least six months; minimising exposure to chemicals and toxins; and eating a healthy balanced diet.” (See ‘Reducing the risks’ box for more.)

While the adverse effects of cigarette smoke and traffic exhaust are well known, Prescott says the effects of other pollutants, such as pesticides, are less understood: “Progressive industrialisation has led to many new environmental chemicals that did not exist in traditional societies, including many products of industry and agriculture. These persistent organic pollutants (POPs) contaminate our food and water supplies.

“Though they may only be consumed in trace amounts, these POPs (such as pesticides) accumulate in our body fat over our lifetime, and levels can amplify with each generation. Many POPs have been detected in maternal fat, umbilical cord blood and breast milk; clear evidence that babies are exposed to these during critical times of development.”

Ongoing research

Other factors, such as prebiotics in the diet, may have a role to play in reducing the risks of allergy, but research is ongoing. And unlike previous recommendations, Prescott says avoiding the introduction of certain foods (such as egg, milk, nuts and seafood) to babies over six months to try to reduce the chance of allergy is no longer advised. In fact, avoidance of these foods has been associated with increased (rather than decreased) risk of allergic disease and possibly coeliac disease.

Ongoing research

Other factors, such as prebiotics in the diet, may have a role to play in reducing the risks of allergy, but research is ongoing. And unlike previous recommendations, Prescott says avoiding the introduction of certain foods (such as egg, milk, nuts and seafood) to babies over six months to try to reduce the chance of allergy is no longer advised. In fact, avoidance of these foods has been associated with increased (rather than decreased) risk of allergic disease and possibly coeliac disease.

The HealthNuts study, which involves over 5,000 children, found that even sunshine levels may play a role in children developing food allergy and eczema, and that siblings and pets may reduce the likelihood of egg allergy in infants.

“It’s telling us that our immune systems are very vulnerable to modern environmental changes,” Prescott says. “In essence, we have disturbed the natural balance of our environment and we are now experiencing the impact on our own health.”

But, according to Prescott, herein may also lie part of the answer: “While there is not a simple one-size-fits-all solution, there is hope. The very fact that allergies have risen so much tells us that our immune system has a plasticity to it.

“We can harness that same plasticity to restore the balance and help solve the problem.”

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Natural skin soothers

Calendula and chamomile are two excellent herbs that can be used to soothe irritated skin.

Dried flowers from both annual and perennial chamomiles (Matricaria recutita and Chamaemelum nobile) made into a cool wash can be used to lessen the pain of sunburn, added to bath water to soothe itchy skin and used to wash and soothe a graze.

Calendula (Calendula officinalis) petals are rubbed directly onto a bite to soothe the pain, or made into a cool wash for red, dry or irritated skin. The wash applied to sores, cuts and grazes will improve healing, but always make sure the wound is clean before applying.

To make a wash: Put 2–3 teaspoons of petals or flowers into a bowl and pour one cup of boiling water over the top. Cover, cool and strain. Use within a few hours.

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Taking care of our planet

Natasha says we can all take effective action to bring about necessary change to help our planet. We can start with solving the problem of our depleted soil. Here are a few TIPS :

Regenerative agriculture: Puts it back into the soil where the majority of carbon has been lost, which improves production and profits by using techniques such as no-till, cover crops, animal integration and organics to increase soil carbon, which in turn increases our food security. 

Biochar: Turns waste streams, such as rice hulls and sugar cane, into a stable form of activated carbon that increases agricultural productivity and can even lock up soil contaminated by heavy metals. And it traps carbon in a form that can last thousands of years.

Seaweed: It’s an algae that grows 10 times faster than terrestrial plants and we can use it to ocean farm carbon. The oceans have acidified as they buffered us from the overload of atmospheric carbon, but it’s reached its limits. We also have ocean dead-zones, caused by agricultural run-off, which we can farm and bring back to life. There are even possibilities to farm it for biofuel and create a short carbon cycle.

Tree planting: Trees help not just reduce atmospheric carbon but reduce temperatures, stabilise landscapes and water systems. They are crucial to a healthy environment. Where we’ve removed them in our more fragile ecosystems we create deserts. We should not be cutting them down anywhere. Organisations that plant trees responsibly are worth supporting. Perhaps we need a scheme where you pay a charge for every tree cut down, that immediately goes back to preserving or planting more trees. 

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Day 1 of 40 Day Wellness Journey

Listen to “Wholistic Lifestyle : The Apothecary Farmacy” on Spreaker.

Today’s Talk:

Quote: “My parents ate meat once a week growing up and they did’nt consider it a difficult lifestyle choice. It was the only lifestyle choice they have.”

I’ve been using a 40 day wellness plan to get me back on track for the last 25 years. I am about to beginning a new 40 DAY WELLNESS JOURNEY, remember your 40 day’s kickstarts a new lifestyle. I will be blogging & Podcasting so that you can get tips. We will get more detailed as we go.

To get started we discussed and overview of the topics you will need to get started. If you feel overwhelmed don’t worry. We will be breaking down all of these things this week.

1. Walking after Dinner
2. Castor Oil Packs
3. Juice Baths (Take 2 baths 1 day a week )
4. Using a Simple 1 day Menu for 7 days
5. Organic Coffee
6. Organic Teas drank 2 times a day
7. Different lifestyle options- vegan, vegetarian, raw, eating meat 1 day a week, eat 1 ounce a meat daily limit.