Common Food Allergy Reactions Could Increase Risk of Cardiovascular Disease

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Investigators believe that the activation of mast cells drives inflammation and contributes to plaque buildup, causing heart attacks and other damage to the heart.

Reactions to common food allergies such as dairy and peanuts could increase the risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD) and cardiovascular death, according to results of a study published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.1,2 Investigators added that the increased risk could be comparable, or even exceed, the risks of smoking, diabetes, and rheumatoid arthritis.1

Stethoscope, red heart and cardiogram on gray table. | Image Credit: New Africa - stock.adobe.com

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“What we looked at here was the presence of [immunoglobulin E] antibodies to food that were detected in blood samples,” Jeffrey Wilson, MD, PhD, an allergy and immunology expert at the University of Virginia School of Medicine, said in a press release. “We don’t think most of these subjects actually had overt food allergy, thus our story is more about an otherwise 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.”1

Investigators from the University of Virginia Health System analyzed data from thousands of individuals. They found that individuals who produced antibodies in response to food allergies had an increased risk of CVD-related death, even after factoring in traditional risk factors, including smoking, high blood pressure, and diabetes. The strongest link was for those allergic to cow’s milk, but peanut and shrimp allergies were also significant, according to a press release.1

Although the results of the study cannot conclusively prove that the antibodies are directly causing the increased risk, investigators noted that the results build on previous findings that connect allergic inflammation to CVD. Further, the results showed that the strongest link to CVD was for those who had the antibodies but consumed the foods regularly, indicating that they did not have severe allergy.1

Previous studies have shown that an allergy transmitted by the bite of the lone star tick can contribute to the risk of CVD due to a sensitivity to alpha-gal.1

“We previously noted a link between allergic antibodies to the alpha-gal red meat allergen and heart disease,” Wilson said in the press release. “That finding has been supported by a larger study in Australia, but the current paper suggests that a link between allergic antibodies to food allergens and heart disease is not limited to alpha-gal. In some ways, this is a surprising finding. On the other hand, we are not aware that anyone has looked before.”1

The investigators also said that other allergic conditions, such as asthma and atopic dermatitis, have also been identified as risk factors for CVD. They added that the allergic responses to food could affect the heart by activating mast cells, known to contribute to allergic reactions and found in the cardiac blood vessels as well as heart tissue, according to a statement. They believe that this could drive inflammation and contribute to plaque buildup causing heart attacks and other damage to the heart.1

However, other genetic or environmental factors could contribute to CVD risk. It could also be possible that CVD could cause an increased risk of food sensitization, though investigators believe this is unlikely.1

“This work raises the possibility that in the future a blood test could help provide personalized information about a heart-healthy diet,” Wilson said in the statement. “Though before that could be recommended, we still have a lot of work to do understand these findings.”1

References

  1. Allergic responses to common foods could significantly increase risk of heart disease, cardiovascular death. News release.
  2. Keet C, McGowan EC, Jacobs D, Platts-Mills TAE, et al. IgE to common food allergens is associated with cardiovascular mortality in the National Health and Examination Survey and the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis. J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2023. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jaci.2023.09.038
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