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Allergic Response to Food Raises Heart Disease Risk

People with sensitivity to common food allergens may be at a higher risk of heart disease and cardiovascular death, even if they don’t have obvious food allergies, a new study finds.

The study published in The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology suggests that people who have immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies to common foods such as cow’s milk or peanuts may be at an increased risk of dying from heart disease.

The immune system produces IgE antibodies in response to an allergen. The antibodies then travel to cells that release chemicals, causing an allergic reaction.

“We were surprised by these findings because it is very common to have IgE to foods (about 15% of American adults have IgE to common food allergens), and most people don’t have any symptoms when they eat the food. As allergists, our thinking has been that it is not important if people have IgE to foods, as long as they don’t have symptoms when they eat the food,” Corinne Keet, MD, PhD, pediatric allergy and immunology professor in the UNC Department of Pediatrics, said in a statement.

The researchers used data from more than 4,414 adults who participated in The National Health and Examination Survey (NHANES) and 960 participants in the Wake Forest site of the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (MESA). The studies measured total and specific IgE to cow’s milk, egg, peanut, shrimp, and dust mites, among other common allergens.

The mortality of the participants was tracked for up to 19 years. In the NHANES study, 229 cardiovascular deaths (CVD) occurred, and 56 died from cardiovascular causes in the MESA cohort.

While the CVD deaths were particularly associated with cow’s milk, sensitivity to shrimp and peanuts was also found to be an additional risk factor for heart disease.

The authors note that associations in the findings related to food sensitization rather than clinical allergy. In fact, the strongest link with cardiovascular death was in people who had the antibodies but continued to consume the food regularly – suggesting they didn’t have a severe food allergy. Therefore, the CVD risk may be increased by a “silent immune response to food.”

“While these responses may not be strong enough to cause acute allergic reactions to food, they might nonetheless cause inflammation and over time lead to problems like heart disease,” said researcher Jeffrey Wilson, M.D., Ph.D., an allergy and immunology expert at the University of Virginia School of Medicine.

Keet added, “While this study provides good evidence of an association between sensitization to these allergens and death from cardiovascular disease, there is much work to be done to understand if this is a causal relationship.”

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