Allergies are your body’s reaction to a protein (allergen) and are a sign your immune system is working overtime. According to the Allergy and Asthma Foundation of America,1 nasal allergies affect nearly 50 million people in the U.S., and that number is growing. As many as 30 percent of adults and 40 percent of children suffer from allergic diseases, including asthma.
These conditions are the fifth leading chronic disease in the U.S. and the third chronic disease in children under 18. In 2010, Americans with allergic rhinitis spent nearly $17.5 billion on health care related to the condition, lost more than 6 million work and school days and had nearly 16 million doctor visits.2
During the second encounter with an allergen, your body is ready to react, sending a powerful cocktail of histamine, leukotrienes and prostaglandins to protect your body. They trigger a cascade of symptoms associated with allergies, such as sneezing, sore throat, runny nose and itchy, watery eyes. Histamine may also cause your airways to constrict, triggering an asthma response or hives.
Pollen is one common allergen that triggers this reaction, but other protein molecules may as well, including mold spores, dust mites, pet dander, cockroaches, and cleaning and personal care products. The activation of this allergic response may be related to your dietary intake and your gut microbiome. Recent research has identified a higher risk of allergies and asthma in children born to mothers who ate high amounts of sugar during their pregnancy.3
Sugar During Pregnancy Increases Your Child’s Risk of Allergies
Researchers at Queen Mary University of London evaluated survey data from nearly 9,000 mother-child pairs in the ongoing Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children, tracking the health of families with children born between April 1, 1991, and December 31, 1992.4 Lead author Annabelle Bedard, Ph.D., commented on what triggered the researchers to evaluate the association between sugar and allergies:5
"The dramatic 'epidemic' of asthma and allergies in the West in the last 50 years is still largely unexplained — one potential culprit is a change in diet. Intake of free sugar and high fructose corn syrup has increased substantially over this period. We know that the prenatal period may be crucial for determining risk of asthma and allergies in childhood and recent trials have confirmed that maternal diet in pregnancy is important."
Using self-reported estimates of sugar intake from questionnaires, the researchers calculated the amount of sugar the mothers ate during their pregnancy and compared this against the number of children diagnosed with allergies or asthma by age 7. Sixty-two percent of the children did not have allergic reactions, 22 percent had common allergies and 12 percent had asthma.
As a comparison, 10 percent of children in the U.S. were diagnosed with asthma in 2010, six years prior to this analysis.6 When the children were grouped into those with the lowest sugar intake during pregnancy (less than 34 grams or 7 teaspoons) and those with the greatest (over 82 grams or 16 teaspoons) the researchers discovered that children whose mothers ate the highest amounts had a 38 percent increased risk of allergies and a 73 percent higher risk of becoming allergic to two or more allergens.7
“We cannot say on the basis of these observations that high intake of sugar by mothers in pregnancy is definitely causing allergy and allergic asthma in their offspring. However, given the extremely high consumption of sugar in the West, we will certainly be investigating this hypothesis further with some urgency.”
Impact of Asthma on Your Community
Asthma is a chronic lung disease that inflames the lining of your lung tissue and narrows the airways. The inflammation in your lung tissue is sensitive to environmental stimuli, also called triggers, which differ from person to person.10 Allergy triggers include dust mites, cockroaches, mold, pet dander and pollen.11
However, you may develop an asthma exacerbation from triggers other than allergic proteins. For instance, strong irritants, such as chemical sprays, perfumes and tobacco smoke or scented products may irritate your lung tissue and narrow your airways. Other triggers include cold weather, exercise, upper respiratory infections, food sensitivities and stress.
In the featured study, researchers found children whose mothers ate high amounts of sugar while pregnant developed asthma triggered by allergens and not by fragrances, cold weather, exercise, infections or food sensitivities. In the past 30 years, the incidence of asthma has increased worldwide. While the condition is generally accepted as costly, some countries do not consider it a health care priority.12
The total cost of treatment and lost work and school to society is difficult to estimate, due in part to different definitions and characterizations of the conditions and different assessments of the socioeconomic impact on society. Although variable from country to country, an average cost per patient in Europe is $1,900, while in the U.S. the cost hovers near $3,100.13