There are a number of factors that seem to contribute to developing food allergies. Genetics seems to play an important role. One study found that that 64% of monozygotic twins had a concordance of peanut allergy, while only 7% dizygotic twins concorded. This means that in 64% of identical twin sets, either both had peanut allergies or neither did, while that was the case in only 7% of fraternal twins. Because monozygotic twins have identical genetic sequences, this finding implies a strong genetic component. HLA haplotyping has been studied, with conflicting reports on links between HLA type and allergies.
One of the most important genetic findings regards filaggrin, a skin barrier protein. Patients with a specific filaggrin mutation are more likely to develop peanut sensitization. This indicates that a damaged skin barrier could cause food sensitization and allergy, and further supports the idea that non-oral exposures can be sensitizing. Additionally, filaggrin mutation causes increased inflammatory mediators in the skin.
Generally, children with peanut or tree nut allergies react the first time the food is ingested. It is thought that they previously encountered these allergens in their environment. Household exposure to peanut was a significant risk factor for peanut allergy in infants. Peanut responsive T cells are found in the skin homing T cells in peanut allergic patients, implying that patients may first be exposed through the skin. There is not yet enough data on maternal ingestion of allergens to know if this is a risk factor. There are conflicting data sets on whether breastfeeding is protective against food allergies, and in any case, outcome appears to be dependent on the mother’s own sensitivity profile. Now seen in multiple recent studies, it seems that early oral exposure to food allergens may actually be protective against food allergy, a change from data produced over a decade ago.
Immune dysregulation is obviously involved in food allergies. Low vitamin A and vitamin D, which modulate the immune system, have been noted as risk factors. Interestingly, food allergy frequency varies with latitude, indicating a further possible connection to sun exposure and vitamin D deficiency. High fat diet can also change the composition and behavior of the microbial content of the GI microbiome. Medium chain triglycerides can increase sensitization when given along with food antigens in mice. There are mixed results with long chain fatty acids.
The changes in hygiene, cleaning products and use of antimicrobial compounds by the general public in the last decades have been implicated in many of the immune changes we have seen, including increasing autoimmune diseases and food allergies. This is known as the hygiene hypothesis, and it states that reduced exposure to microbes changes immune defense, causing improper reactivity to harmless components, like food and self cells. In food allergic mice, the gut microbiota has a very specific composition and transferring this flora set can actually make others more likely to develop food allergies. Dysbiosis has been noted in children with food allergies and a sequencing study demonstrated that food allergic children with atopic dermatitis have reduced microbial diversity in the gut.
Cecilia Berin, Hugh A. Sampson. Food allergy: an enigmatic epidemic. Trends in Immunology, Volume 34, Issue 8, August 2013, pages 390-397.
Cecilia Berin, Hugh A. Sampson. Mucosal Immunology of Food Allergy. Current Biology, Volume 23, Issue 9, May 2013, pages R389-R400.