Media > Allergies a growing problem
Sitting in grassy fields has always made Sarah Ruff itchy, so she figured she was allergic to grass. But until Wednesday afternoon, Ruff had no idea she was also allergic to nearly every type of tree in Gainesville.
As she watched the bumps on her arms redden and get bigger while undergoing allergy testing, Ruff said she was excited to finally learn the culprits behind ongoing symptoms that ranged from weight gain and upset stomachs to the occasional outbreak of hives.
Ruff, 26, is probably not an atypical allergy patient in Gainesville, which because of its variety of trees, grasses and shrubs, elicits allergic reactions in lots of people — especially those who are relatively new to the city, since experts say it takes about two years for allergies to emerge. At the same time, food allergies are increasing everywhere, which experts say can be hard to detect because their symptoms — such as fatigue and headaches — are so ordinary they often are passed off as something else.
Ruff is at the forefront of solving this allergy dilemma, as an employee of the Gainesville Medical Centers, a branch of the Atlanta Physicians Group. In the next month, the clinic will open on Northwest 13th Street, primarily to test and treat people for environmental and food allergies.
Since October, the group has provided testing to about 300 people at the offices of various primary-care physicians, dermatologists, wellness centers and chiropractors in Gainesville.
Tony Hernandez, the marketing coordinator for the new allergy testing center, said most people don't realize that they may be allergic to numerous foods.And many times, it's the healthiest people who are the hardest to convince that they should be tested, Hernandez added. That's because they tend to eat the same healthy foods, and even though they might suffer from symptoms such as fatigue, moodiness or bad breath that even healthy foods can cause, they don't correlate the symptoms with those foods.
Hernandez described one woman who works out constantly at the gym but couldn't lose weight. The testing revealed an allergy to spinach, which she ate an average of three to four times a day: in an egg-white omelette for breakfast and a salad for lunch and dinner. Every couple of days she went through four to five pounds of spinach.
All of that stopped when she learned about her allergy and followed a diet to eliminate all foods to which she was allergic. She lost about 20 pounds in two weeks and feels much better, said Hernandez, who himself underwent testing and found out he was allergic to one of his favorite staples: bananas.
"I'm very healthy. I go to the gym four to five times a week. I've never had an airborne allergy or food," Hernandez said. And yet, eating a banana every day, "I've always had a toxin in my body."
And that might have been the cause of one of about 100 proven symptoms related to allergies, such as the occasional insomnia or moodiness, which Hernandez never associated with eating bananas.
"These (foods) aren't causing life-threatening issues at the time, but it's suppressing your immune system," he said, adding that over time, constantly feeding your body what it considers toxins could lead to longer-term problems and more serious conditions such as heart disease and cancer.
The scientific evidence might not support that leap yet, but intuitively, putting "toxic" foods into your body causes inflammation, the precursor to ill health, Hernandez said.
He's four weeks into a 12-week elimination diet of foods he is allergic to, which apart from bananas, includes cauliflower, cheese, cow's milk, mushrooms and baker's yeast.
Hernandez said many people are allergic to baker's yeast or brewer's yeast — which means beer and wine, or bread and sweets — things that are without a doubt hard to give up, but for some people at least, worth living without for a while experimentally to determine just which foods cause them to experience certain symptoms.
After the 12-week individualized elimination diet the Gainesville Medical Centers provides, people reintroduce foods they are allergic to one by one to see how their body reacts. For example, if Hernandez eats a banana and it gives him a headache, he knows bananas give him headaches.
"I know the consequences so I'm less likely to eat them. Some people quit cold turkey," Hernandez said, adding that in the month he has been on his diet, he's sleeping through the night and feels better.
Dr. John Harwick, an allergy specialist at the University of Florida and Shands, calls these food allergies "intolerances," distinguishing them from traditional allergies that could send you to the emergency room with anaphylactic shock.
Both bonafide food allergies and intolerances are on the rise throughout the world, many speculate because of the increasingly processed diet, particularly in the West.
"Over the past 10 years, we've seen in most countries a tremendous increase," said Dr. Dana Wallace, the immediate past president of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. "I have twice as many food-allergic children as I used to."
And in the developing world, allergies are increasing — both as the Western diet has traveled there and as the body has overcome other diseases, Wallace continued.
"As we conquer measles, diphtheria, our immune system no longer needs to fight that … The body is fully thinking it's protecting you against what it thinks of as a foreign," she said.
Locally, schools could begin taking measures to arm themselves against allergy emergencies when children with allergies don't have epinephrine pens with them so they can receive a shot during a severe allergic reaction. A bill was just passed in the Florida House and Senate that allows schools to store epinephrine pens and obliges school personnel to know how to use them in emergencies. The bill is pending the governor's approval, and if passed, would go into effect on July 1.
If it does, Wallace, whose practice is based in Fort Lauderdale, said she is hopeful the law would help amend the fact that "schools are one of the most common places for errors."
As for the environmental allergens, Gainesville's perpetual growing season and pollen make for a "perpetual allergy season," Wallace said. That's different than elsewhere in the country, such as the Northeast, where ragweed season is concentrated over one or two months.
Harwick said tree pollens emerge in the spring, grass pollens in the summer and weeds in the fall.
"There's definitely overlap. Right now, we're coming to the end of tree season and the beginning of grass season. There is a lot of blending," Harwick said, adding that despite recent rainfall, the relatively dry spring intensified the dissemination of pollen.
"One of the things that helps allergy patients the most is telling them to clean out their nose with saline solution. That helps reduce the contact of pollen inside the nasal cavity that intensifies symptoms," Harwick said.
When over-the-counter treatments fail, he added, patients should get tested.
Like Ruff, they likely will be treated with immunotherapy — in which all of the allergens that gave her bumps on her arms during testing are blended into a serum that gradually will desensitize her body to every single one.
By Kristine Vrane
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Sitting in grassy fields has always made Sarah Ruff itchy, so she figured she was allergic to grass. But until Wednesday afternoon ...