Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The baffling rise in seasonal allergies: Global warming or obesity?

The July 26, 2010 issue of Fortune has an interesting set of graphs on page 14. It shows the rise of allergies in the USA, together with figures on lost productivity, doctor visits, and medical expenditures. (What would you expect? This is Fortune, and money matters.) It also shows some cool maps with allergen concentrations, and how they are likely to increase with global warming. (See below; click on it to enlarge; use the "CRTL" and "+" keys to zoom in, and CRTL" and "-" to zoom out.)

The implication: A rise in global temperatures is causing an increase in allergy cases. Supposedly the spring season starts earlier, with more pollen being produced overall, and thus more allergy cases.


I checked their numbers against population growth, because as the population of a country increases, so will the absolute number of allergy cases (as well as cancer cases, and cases of almost any disease). What is important is whether there has been an increase in allergy rates, or the percentage of the population suffering from allergies. Well, indeed, allergy rates have been increasing.

Now, I don’t know about your neck of the woods, but temperatures have been unusually low this year in South Texas. Global warming may be happening, but given recent fluctuations in temperature, I am not sure global warming explains the increases in allergy rates. Particularly the spike in allergy rates in 2010; this seems to be very unlikely to be caused by global warming.

And I have my own experience of going from looking like a seal to looking more like a human being. When I was a seal (i.e., looked like one), I used to have horrible seasonal pollen allergies. Then I lost 60 lbs, and my allergies diminished dramatically. Why? Body fat secretes a number of pro-inflammatory hormones (see, e.g., this post, and also this one), and allergies are essentially exaggerated inflammatory responses.

So I added obesity rates to the mix, and came up with the table and graph below (click on it to enlarge).

Obesity rates and allergies do seem to go hand in hand, don’t you think? The correlation between obesity and allergy rates is a high 0.87!

Assuming that this correlation reflects reasonably well the relationship between obesity and allergy rates (something that is not entirely clear given the small sample), obesity would still explain only 75.7 percent of the variance in allergy rates (this number is the correlation squared). That is, about 24.3 percent of the variance in allergy rates would be due to other missing factors.

A strong candidate for missing factor is something that makes people obese in the first place, namely consumption of foods rich in refined grains, seeds, and sugars. Again, in my experience, removing these foods from my diet reduced the intensity of allergic reactions, but not as much as losing a significant amount of body fat. We are talking about things like cereals, white bread, doughnuts, pasta, pancakes covered with syrup, regular sodas, and fruit juices. Why? These foods also seem to increase serum concentrations of pro-inflammatory hormones within hours of their consumption.

Other candidates are vitamin D levels, and lack of exposure to natural environments during childhood, just to name a few. People seem to avoid the sun like the plague these days, which can lower their vitamin D levels. This is a problem because vitamin D modulates immune responses; so it is important in the spring, as well as in the winter. The lack of exposure to natural environments during childhood may make people more sensitive to natural allergens, like pollen.