Being born in the U.S. entitles you to a huge variety of freedoms that those from other countries don't enjoy—but it may come at the price of sneezing, itchy eyes, wheezing and all the other ills that plague allergy sufferers. A study just published in JAMA Pediatrics has found that children born in the U.S. are almost twice as likely to develop allergic diseases than children born in other countries.
The study, which used health survey data for 79,667 children, revealed that U.S.-born children have a 34.5 percent chance of developing asthma, hay fever, eczema, and food allergies, compared with just 20.3 percent of foreign-born children. Not only that, but children who live here whose parents were born outside the U.S. were also less likely to develop allergic diseases than American kids born to American parents. In addition, the study found that children born outside the U.S. who then moved here were more likely to develop allergies the longer they lived in this country.
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The findings were independent of race, parents' socioeconomic status, and whether the children lived in urban or rural areas—all factors that can influence the development of allergies and asthma—which suggests there's something uniquely American that's driving up allergy rates. Diet appears to be a major influencing factor, the authors write. Parents living in other countries eat a wider variety of spices and drink more green tea, both foods that have antiallergenic properties, than do U.S. parents. Parents who eat healthy diets generally have children who do, as well.
Furthermore, the U.S. has one of the highest childhood obesity rates in the world, and a number of studies have linked obesity to an increased risk of allergies. But that can't explain away the entire problem; the researchers looked at studies of children from Mexico, which has a childhood obesity problem that almost rivals that of the U.S., and those studies found that Mexican-born children still have lower odds of developing asthma and ragweed, pet, and food allergies than U.S.-born Mexican Americans.
The findings, the authors write, support the idea that Americans are simply too clean. The "hygiene hypothesis," as it's known, is the theory that infections or certain bacterial exposures throughout your life prime your immune system and enable it to fight off harmless foreign invaders like pollen, peanut proteins, cat dander, and pollution. Americans prize antibacterial soaps, mildew-resistant shower curtains, and odor-repelling clothes, and as a result, we're exposed to a much less diverse array of bacteria than other cultures.
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But you can counteract that:
• Avoid antibacterial anything. The Food and Drug Administration has stated that soap and water are as effective at cleaning as antibacterial soaps, which contain the chemicals triclosan and triclocarban, both linked to allergies. Also avoid consumer products marketed as "antimicrobial" or "antiodor," which means they've been treated with chemicals that are killing bacteria that can be dealt with just as effectively by a good thorough washing.
• Eat more sourdough bread. It's not just our countertops that are too clean. With the exception of yogurt, most foods in the standard American diet have been pasteurized to kill off a diverse array of beneficial microbes that strengthen the immune system. Fermented foods, such as real sourdough breads and homemade sauerkraut (not the shelf-stable kind you buy at the grocery store; it too has been pasteurized), can restore some of your gut's good bacteria and make you less prone to allergies, according to a study in the International Journal of Food Microbiology.
• Eat organic. You're exposed to killers of good bacteria every time you pick up a nonorganic processed food, thanks to U.S. agriculture's heavy reliance on herbicides. Two of the most widely used herbicides in the U.S., 2,4-D and Roundup (used on corn and soy), either exhibit antimicrobial activity or have actually been registered as antimicrobials with the Environmental Protection Agency. Both have been found to damage gut bacteria, and one study from Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City found an association between food allergies and the levels of 2,4-D by-products found in urine.
Published on: April 30, 2013
Updated on: May 1, 2013