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The Complexity of Food Allergies: More Than Meets the Eye

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Waking up the day of high school graduation is typically a gift from the gods; a chance to leave the confines of an underage life with parents. For those with food allergies though, it’s just another day of heightened awareness. One misstep at the party buffet and the night is ruined with hives, sneezing or anaphylactic shock.

Going to college is a difficult tradition in and of itself. In addition to a life- threatening condition like food allergies, teens and young adults are at the highest risk of death because of vehicle accidents, drug overdose, and alcohol intoxication.

Chelsey Heath, a freshman at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, has an anaphylactic peanut allergy. She feels many young adults with food allergies do not practice healthy behaviors.

The Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network said, “A study showed that teens with food allergy and asthma appear to be at the highest risk for a reaction, because they are more likely to take risks when away from home, are less likely to carry medications, and may ignore or not recognize symptoms."

The inability to accurately assess risk is one reason many college students with food allergies disassociate themselves from behaviors that may prevent an allergic reaction. Some students may find healthy, safe options difficult to find on campus; others may feel they’re invincible to reactions.

“I’m a very type-A person, but the average student who goes and gets drunk could be in real danger. How many people would be able and willing to help them if they went into anaphylactic shock?” said Heath.

Anaphylactic shock, the most detrimental of reactions, is categorized by a change in blood pressure, swelling of the esophagus and difficulty breathing. Symptoms may also include hives, swollen lips and change in skin tone. All reactions within the anaphylaxis range are deadly and must be treated immediately.

Studies indicate those with food allergies are likely to struggle with more than one food allergy and a culmination of other allergies; including medicines, animal danders and pollen.

Heath is also allergic to wool, rayon, grass, cigarette smoke, nickel, and her own sweat (which results in a heat rash). She’s not alone.

“There’s very little conception of food allergies. Some people don’t always take it seriously and they think I’m just being picky but I respond, ‘Uh, I’ll show you what picky is when I can’t breathe.’”

Google.com searches of “college students and food allergies” reveal many different blogs, recipes and online support groups, but are college services up to par?
Jessica Miller a 22-year-old secondary education-biological sciences major at ASU who was diagnosed with a citrus allergy the summer before ninth grade and has a reason to complain. As she ages her allergy has gotten progressively worse.
Miller says the biggest difficulty is ingesting her allergen without any knowledge of doing so; ASU’s dining hall on the downtown campus poses concerns with soups, sauces or fruit salads.

“I have a problem with some of the ways different restaurants (including the dining halls on campus) can’t give you an explanation about what is in the food.
“If you ask someone, you usually have to wait and see if the chef is available to get a list of ingredients and they’re very inconsistent with their signs,” complained Miller.

Taylor Stelk, a second-year food science major at the University of Nebraska, comes from the other side of the fence.

“College campus knowledge of food allergies is (at least to me) surprisingly high. Perhaps this is because I live on a campus that has a well-based department of food allergies, but dining services do provide meals to those with food allergies,” said Stelk.

As a researcher in food industries’ maintenance of allergen-free products, Stelk rates the general public’s knowledge as decent. “The food industry has begun to create products that are ‘gluten-free’ and ‘peanut free’, but I do not the think it is common knowledge of how prevalent some allergens are in a wide variety of foods.
Many people don’t consider the fact that many food producers create dozens of products in one facility.”

Lindsey Mock, a nursing student at ASU with a shellfish allergy, believes safety and awareness are the responsibility of the person with the food allergy.
“I did not need to make any special arrangements before going to school/living in the dormitories, since I stay away from food products (that may contain shellfish). Products have a list of ingredients, so consumers can check for their food allergy,” Mock said.

However, because manufactured food is such a staple for busy college students, the risk can be high.

The recommended class load for the average student is 16 credits. With class time, study sessions, regular exercise, work and a social life, preparing meals multiple times a day can be challenging.

Preparing meals multiple times a day on a limited variety of food isn’t any easier.
Dr. Michael Manning, an allergy specialist in Scottsdale, Ariz., responds to the complexity of the disease as the antagonist in finding a cure.
“The allergic reaction to a food is due to a very specific immune response to a particular protein, of a group of proteins, that are found in a food. Typically there is a major protein responsible for triggering the reaction, the allergen is the protein found in the food.

“The more we know about the proteins involved, the more we can target what is needed to turn the reaction off. However, it is difficult to use the term ‘cure’ with allergic disease because the individual has a genetic predisposition to make allergic antibodies- it is very difficult to completely shut that system down.”

Dr. Douglas Lake, an immunology and allergy expert at ASU explains the genetic predisposition of food allergies in the context of an autoimmune disease.
Problems arise in the most basic aspects of the chemical composition of proteins. Because proteins are comprised of many different molecular relationships like amino acid sequences, carboxyl groups and R-groups, finding the actual cause is like finding a needle in a never-ending haystack.

Lake points out the difficulty of food allergies in the body’s translation of amino acids. Peoples' ability to digest a given protein is written in his or her DNA, and each protein’s particular structure is “written” in the sequence of their amino acids.

All amino acids are constructed from different arrangements of hydrogen, nitrogen, carbon, and oxygen. Because of the infinite arrangements from such basic elements, it’s especially hard to pinpoint a medicinal direction to study when there’s such complexity in a given protein.

Marc Dufour, a father of a child with food allergies, sees the rising prevalence in media as a positive incentive for more studies.

“There are a lot of interesting theories these days and this is encouraging because it means food allergies are a topic of interest and discussion, and related research is finally on the front burner.”

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EmpowHER Guest

OUr son has severe food allergies, food intolerance and Eczema and it has been a long rad for us. I am so thankful for his Belly Boost helping with his skin but we will always have to be so careful about other foods and carrying his Epi-pen. I did a post today on this too as this week is Food Allergy Awareness Week! Great post - thanks for increasing awareness!

May 10, 2010 - 9:42am
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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.

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