Allergy Epidemic…!?

NDSU Microbiology
by NDSU Microbiology

Guest Blogger, Nick Metz, Undergraduate in Microbiology

“Have any allergies?”

This is a question I hear every time I do anything medical, and every time, I say “no” with an indifferent look on my face. “Only city people have allergies,” I think to myself.

I’ve lived on a farm for my entire life, and I’ve never had allergies – to anything. When I left the farm and came to college here at NDSU, I noticed all the people suffering from allergies. When I ask them where they are from and many say the Fargo area or the Minneapolis area, I start to wonder why it seems like city people are more susceptible to allergies than those who live in a rural region.

Allergies are an accident of our immune systems. The immune system mistakes harmless proteins like dust or peanuts as a threat and responds. This is when a person’s eyes water, nose runs, throat dries up, and in some extreme cases, the person might die. Allergic disease and asthma increased between two and threefold in the late 20th century and is often called the “allergy epidemic.” While respiratory allergies are showing signs of leveling off, food and skin allergies are continuing to rise. Five percent of children have some sort of food allergy, and with every new generation, life threatening allergic reactions are becoming more common.

Dr. Mark Holbreich, an allergist in Indianapolis, recently studied the Amish people living in the northern part of Indiana and found that 7.2 percent of the 138 Amish children were sensitized to tree pollen and other allergens. In comparison, nearly half of Americans have some sort of allergy. So why is there such a substantial gap? Ninety-two percent of the Amish children in this study either lived on farms or were frequently on them, which suggests that farming might be the secret to defeating allergies.

In the late 1990’s, European scientists came up with a theory called the “farm effect.” This stated that children exposed to cowshed microbes, plant material, and raw milk were favorably stimulated and protected from future allergies. Dr. Holbreich further strengthened this hypothesis when he investigated the Amish who are exposed to all of these stimuli starting in the womb. The real challenge now is to identify the important exposures and put them into a bottle to help sensitive city folk.

It all seems so simple, but here’s a wrinkle, a study by me on me. Like I said previously, I have grown up on a farm with cattle and the three major crops in this region: corn, soybeans, and wheat. I have had no allergy symptoms throughout my life until recently. I have worked with the spring wheat research project here at NDSU for a year and a half now, and I’ve started to notice some allergy signs. I worked on threshing and cleaning seed, which results in a lot of dust and small particles of plant matter in the air. Last year, I had no symptoms of allergies, but now, towards the end of this year (2013), I have started to get mild symptoms like itchy eyes and a runny nose. I talked to my supervisors about this, and they told me that after working so many years with wheat, many people eventually become allergic to it. It’s baffling to me, that “eventually” people can become allergic to something they work with every day.

It’s definitely something I’ll have to study more deeply, but for now, I’ll conclude with a reminder about my own “farm effect” experiences and the recent studies of the Amish people. Allergies can be prevented by early and often exposure to a farming environment with all sorts of microbes and other proteins. Now only if we can find the important ones and give them to those who aren’t regularly exposed to these microbes. As Dr. Holbreich puts it best, “What is it about westernization that makes people allergic?

This entry is part of the fall MICR 354 scientific writing students' blog series.

Pollen Image: Dartmouth Electron Microscope Facility, Dartmouth College