Living with food allergies can be tough, but there is some good news. Several studies have found a connection between allergies, including those to food, and a reduced risk of developing certain types of cancer. With all the worry, extra time and money that food allergies cost you, it’s nice to get a little bit of good news. So what exactly does the research say about your kid’s food allergies and cancer?
Cancer vs. Allergies
The evidence that allergies could protect against cancer isn’t new. Decades-old research points to this protection. For example, a study from 1979 looked at a group of patients with skin and breast cancers and found that rates of allergies were low among them. This was one of the earliest indications that there could be a protective connection between allergies and cancer.
Since then, more and more evidence has been compiled. A study from 2005 found that people with atopic dermatitis, a type of allergy that often co-exists with others, like food allergies, were much less likely to develop brain cancer, pancreatic cancer and childhood leukemia. Another study from the same year found that allergies, including food allergies, protected against non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
In a more recent study from 2012, researchers looked specifically at the rates of oral squamous cell carcinoma, a type of mouth cancer. They investigated over 400 people with allergies and more than 600 people without allergies as a control group. The results showed that people with a history of airborne allergies, pet allergies, antibiotic allergies and food allergies were less likely to have this type of cancer.
The protective connection was weakest for food allergies, but the researchers believe that this is misleading. Many people report having food allergies when they really only have an intolerance to a food, not an allergy. This probably artificially raised the incidence of cancer in the group of people who reported having food allergies.
Allergies, Cancer and the Immune System
While the evidence continues to grow and gives those of us with allergies or who have children with allergies hope, the reason for the protection is not known. There are several ideas to explain the connection, and many of them come down to the immune system.
Allergies are an overreaction, or a mistaken reaction, of the immune system. For example, if your kid’s food allergies include wheat, her immune system treats proteins in wheat as if they were invaders, or pathogens, and go on the attack. In someone with cancer, the immune system fails to attack tumor cells growing out of control. It may be that the immune system is the common factor between allergies and cancer.
If a person with allergies has a hyperactive immune system, this may help it to be more vigilant against cancer cells. While attacking food proteins and other allergens is unnecessary and harmful, this attention to detail by the immune system may be beneficial when it comes to cancer and tumor growth.
Researchers may also have found a gene that is responsible for allergic reactions and autoimmune disorders, which could help explain the cancer connection. Certain immune cells are responsible for starting immune system attacks and scaling them back to strike a balance. People with allergies and autoimmune disorders have an alteration in this gene. This may be the reason that their immune systems are unbalanced and attack more often. This imbalance could be what prevents tumor growth and protects against cancer.
As more research is done on the subject, we should learn more about how those of us with food allergies may have a leg up when it comes to cancer. If your child has food allergies, she may not have complete protection from cancer, but you can feel good about the fact that she is probably less likely to develop the terrible disease.