Pass the Dirty Peanuts?

Thursday, July 14, 2016

In an interesting parallel to the various accidental comparative experiments in economics that took place during the Cold War are a couple of recent medical findings pertaining to allergies and autoimmune disorders. The more recent one I encountered relates to peanut allergy likely being brought on by parents attempting to stave off the same from their children:

Lead author Prof Gideon Lack said: "[The research] clearly demonstrates that the majority of infants did in fact remain protected and that the protection was long-lasting."

He said that part of the problem was that people lived in a "culture of food fear".

"I believe that this fear of food allergy has become a self-fulfilling prophecy, because the food is excluded from the diet and, as a result, the child fails to develop tolerance," he told the BBC News website.
This reminds me a little of another finding relating to celiac disease and immune system training:
Maybe more telling, this disparity holds for other autoimmune and allergic diseases. Finland ranks first in the world for Type 1 autoimmune diabetes. But among Russian Karelians, the disease is nearly six times less frequent. Antibodies indicative of autoimmune thyroiditis are also less prevalent, and the risk of developing allergies, as gauged by skin-prick tests, is one-fourth as common.

What's the Russians' secret?

"It's a remote territory of Russia," says Heikki Hyoty, a scientist at the University of Tampere in Finland. "They live like Finns 50 years ago."

At the time of this research, roughly a decade ago, Russia's per-capita income was one-fifteenth of Finland's. Analysis of house dust and potable water suggests that the Russian Karelians encountered a greater variety and quantity of microbes, including many that were absent in Finland. [bold added, links omitted]
It is interesting to consider what take-home lesson one might derive from this. I don't think it's, "Slop the pigs with peanut butter and marinate your baby in their pen for six hours a day," any more than, "Avoid peanuts entirely," was to the knowledge that repeated exposure to an allergen might cause an allergy to develop. I take it to be something like, "Relax, and let science take its slow and meandering, yet steady, course to the truth."

Even without modern controversies about the reliability of individual publications, biological systems are complex enough that one should usually place more weight on what one can observe over history: Millions have lived long lives with peanuts and wheat in their diets: These things are likely safe for most people. Both foods have attracted research interest, and that might merit some attention, particularly if one is from, say, an allergy-prone family. But without evidence so compelling as to overturn everything else I know about a subject, I don't normally see individual scientific studies as reasons by themselves to deviate from common practices. (And I'm setting aside my great suspicion of things that get enormous amounts of media coverage.)

-- CAV


Jennifer Snow said...

I don't have peanut allergies or obvious celiac, but I do have severe inflammation and swelling in my legs that appears to be immune-system related, and the thing I've experienced is this:

Once it's broke, it's REALLY broke.

There appear to be a lot of interrelated factors that can lead to what you might call an "immune cascade" where the body keeps progressively damaging itself. Allergies are one type of cascade--rheumatoid arthritis another. There appear to be numerous different types of these "cascade" type reactions. If you don't ever trigger a cascade, you can live with all kinds of stuff quite well. But once you do you're pretty much screwed and you're going to have to do some pretty extreme stuff to combat it.

Oddly enough, my nasty teenage allergies have basically vanished over the past few years as I've changed my diet, but I have to be super-careful or I swell up and have digestive problems now. :( Not sure I got the better end of that "trade".

Gus Van Horn said...

I'm glad you were able to get rid of those nasty problems, and it is good to know that there are hypoallergenic diets people who have similar problems can try with some success. Since nutrition and immunology are areas of active scientific inquiry, there is a lot of "try it and see if it helps" to go through, on top of having to weigh scientific evidence and judge whether various lines of anecdotal evidence are credible.