The Puzzle With Allergies

The puzzle with allergies is why we get them at all!

A blog by Beakerhead co-founder, broadcaster and author, Jay Ingram!

Our immune systems are well-stocked with tools to deal with foreign invaders like viruses and bacteria. But in a growing number of people, the same immune system, when confronted by apparently harmless substances like plant pollens, peanuts or Latex, triggers instantaneous and violent allergic reactions! And even more puzzling, the arm of the immune system responsible for those sometimes fatal events is the same one that responds to parasitic worms.

What do parasitic worms have to do with this? Hookworms, round worms and whipworms are a major health threat, particularly in tropical countries. It’s been estimated that 40% of the world’s population has one kind or another. But people infected with these worms also generate large amounts of the specific antibody responsible for allergy, even though there’s no full-on allergic response, and the worms often persist. But allergies are less frequent!

Here’s the classic example of worms versus allergy: American parasitologist Eric Ottesen twice visited the island of Mauke in the South Pacific. On his first trip he distributed anti-parasite medications to combat a widespread worm infection in the island’s 600 residents. Twenty years later, he returned and found that the drugs had worked: the number of people with worms had been cut in half. But oddly, the number with allergies had increased dramatically, from 3% to 15%. And one of the most important allergens was octopus, an animal that the islanders had been eating for generations.

Ottesen’s experience supports the much broader idea, the “hygiene hypothesis”, the notion that the more nature you experience, the more microbes you’re exposed to, the better your immune system at developing a wide range of resistance. Where people live in countries where hygienic practices have reduced microbes and practically eliminated parasites, allergy thrives.

Where allergies came from is still not completely understood, but in the meantime you can immerse yourself in the subject at Beakerhead’s I’ve Felt Better Workshop. Felt your own red blood cell; learn about allergy from medical researcher Dr. Kamala Patel. If spring ever comes, you might need this information!

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