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Why Allergies Are On The Rise with Professor Theresa MacPhail

by Dr. Rangan Chatterjee   /  June 28, 2023

This summer is already proving a tricky one for people with hay fever. Pollen counts are rising and more of us are experiencing symptoms than ever before. But it’s not just pollen. From airborne allergens to the food on our plates, or the chemicals and plants that touch our skin, around 40% of the global population has some form of allergic disease. By 2030, today’s guest reveals, 50% of us will be affected.

Professor Theresa MacPhail is a medical anthropologist and writer, who made it her life’s work to understand more about allergy after her father died following a bee sting. Her book Allergic: How Our Immune System Reacts To A Changing World, is a detailed, enlightening look at the history of allergies and their growth in line with the industrial revolution.

Why are allergies on the rise? Why is that 200 years ago, allergies barely existed, yet today we’re even seeing them in our pets and farm animals? These are some of the questions we address in this week’s conversation.

Theresa starts off talking about our immune systems and what actually happens to cause the release of a chemical called histamine – which is responsible for many of our allergic symptoms.

She also covers the main historical theories as to the cause of allergies, from the ‘hygiene hypothesis’ to the ‘farmhouse effect’ and the ‘old friends theory’. Each offers us a potential part of the explanation, but none of them in isolation are able to explain it all.

What we do know is that allergies occur in the interaction between humans and our environment. And our environment has changed so much over the past 200 years that our immune systems simply cannot keep up.

Theresa explains the body’s three main barriers to infection and allergy – our skin, respiratory system and gut. When these barriers are damaged, Theresa explains, they become more porous and can let unwanted molecules into our bodies – causing infection, inflammation, or allergy. And what’s damaging them is modern life – things like air pollution, diesel fumes, chemicals, antibiotics, to name just a few. 

So what can we do to mitigate this? We cover the practical steps that people can take but it’s not just an individualised approach we need, there are much wider societal issues that need addressing as well.

Talking with Theresa, what shone through most in all her ideas was the fact that we are all part of a much bigger eco system – we are basically in constant conversation with the world around us. Our bodies are continually making decisions on what they can tolerate and what they can’t.

Yes, on an individual level, we can all try our best to build up our own barriers so that we can tolerate more of the modern environment – but the uncomfortable truth is that we all collectively have a lot more to do to protect each other and the natural world. 

I think this conversation is wonderful deep dive into a very important topic. My hope is that anyone suffering from allergies will feel seen, and anyone lucky enough not to, will gain more empathy and understanding. I hope you enjoy listening.

*Please note that this conversation refers to studies on mice

Disclaimer: The content in the podcast and on this webpage is not intended to constitute or be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.*

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Watch the video version of the conversation here:

Connect with Theresa:

Website     Instagram     Twitter     

Theresa’s book:

Allergic: How Our Immune System Reacts to a Changing World

Related Feel Better Live More Episodes:

#98 Why We Need To Fix Our Food System with Mark Hyman

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*DISCLAIMER: Always seek the advice of your doctor or other qualified health care provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have heard on the podcast or on my website.

†Disclosure: All books marked with a † are hyperlinked to an affiliate program. We take part in Amazon’s affiliate advertising program designed to provide a way for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon’s website. You are not charged any extra by using these links to purchase books.

Dr. Rangan Chatterjee MbChB, BSc (Hons), MRCP, MRCGP