Allergies and autoimmune disease are reaching epidemic proportions — not just in the U.S. and Europe, but in the rest of the industrially developing world. Asthma, celiac disease, Type 1 diabetes, arthritis, multiple sclerosis, lupus — all are on the rise. Even certain conditions not previously considered immune disorders, such as autism, metabolic syndrome and obesity, are now seen as manifestations of immune dysfunction.
What caused all this? Can the epidemic be reversed? And what can you do if you suffer from asthma, allergies and autoimmune disease?
Many who follow this site are generally sympathetic to the “paleo” hypothesis: namely, that allergies, autoimmune disease , and other degenerative diseases are the spawn of neolithic agents — such as wheat and other grains, and legumes, introduced during the transition to an agrarian society about 10,000 years ago. These neolithic foodstuffs expose us to higher levels of carbohydrates and novel proteins and anti-nutrients — such as gluten, phytic acid and lectins — that our evolutionary history as primates did not adapt us (or at least many of us) to tolerate. There is a lot of evidence to support this idea — from archeology and comparative anthropology, to studies in genetics and immunology.
But is it true?
There is an alternative explanation that has now been put forward, based upon a revolution in immunology during the past decade. Like the paleo hypothesis, this new theory is grounded in evolutionary biology, and it likewise sees our modern lifestyle as an evolutionary anomaly. But this new perspective places the advent of the twin epidemics of allergy and autoimmunity — and more generally inflammatory disorders — not at the introduction of agriculture, but much more recently: at the upswing and aftermath of the Industrial Revolution. And it identifies the causal agent not as the addition of neolithic foods, but rather the subtraction of a key protective factor that we’ve lived with since the beginning of human evolution, or even mammalian evolution.
The agent of our immunological misery is the disappearance of something we co-evolved with in a mutually beneficial relationships: microbes and parasites that have lived inside our bodies for millennia.
This new hypothesis is brilliantly summarized in a recent book by Moises Velasquez-Manoff: An Epidemic of Absence: A New Way of Understanding Allergies and Autoimmune Disease. In 307 pages the author, a science writer, synthesizes a diverse range of research, interviews and adventures into a detective novel that ends with a quest to treat his own rare autoimmune disorder. The book is both compelling and honest in probing both the promise and the limits of the arguments and evidence for this new perspective on practical immunology.
This new view leads to some unorthodox ideas about how to combat allergies and autoimmune diseases. Some of the ideas being tested may seem wild to you. But I’ll end with one very safe recommendation that makes good sense to me now, despite earlier doubts, and which I’ve already implemented with great gusto.