According to a new study from Cornell University, allergies might be the body’s defense against toxins that can cause cancer. The study raises questions about whether or not we should be quelling allergy symptoms. The research found the greatest correlation between cancers that develop in body tissue exposed to the environment, which includes skin, bladder, colon, mouth, throat, cervix, uterus, lung and gastrointestinal tract cancers. The link weakens when it comes to breast and prostate cancer, myeloma, and myelocytic leukemia – tissues that are less environmentally susceptible. Hives, hay fever, allergies to food and meat, and eczema were strongly associated with lower cancer rates from environmental exposure of body tissues.
Paul Sherman, Cornell professor of neurobiology and behavior, led the Cornell study. Dr. Sherman believes that allergies serve to rid the body of toxins, including those that cause cancer. When we sneeze and cough, it seems possible that the body is ridding itself of cancer causing antigens, as well as other irritants. "The idea is that the immunoglobulin E system (which is widespread among mammals) and its associated allergy symptoms serve a common prophylactic function," says Dr. Sherman. He also finds another correlation in the fact that the worse allergy sufferers have the least amount of toxins in their body.
The IgE system (immunoglobulin E) has been long thought to contribute to the body’s recognition of cancer. IgE levels become elevated in response to eczema and allergies. We have much to learn about the role of IgE. Scientists don't know why some people have drastic responses to environmental triggers that cause coughing, sneezing, hives and other symptoms that mark allergies. We do know it is protective.
The researchers examined 50 years worth of publications, exploring 646 studies to reach their conclusions. Their work is "the most comprehensive database yet available" exploring allergies and cancers. The result of Dr. Sherman’s research shows that allergies likely serve an important purpose. Suffering through might be the best thing.
Dr. Sherman hopes his efforts “will stimulate reconsideration…of the current prevailing view … that allergies are merely disorders of the immune system which, therefore, can be suppressed with impunity." Further research should help us learn more about the role of allergies and cancer prevention.
The next time you cough and sneeze with an allergy, you might think about how your body could be protecting you from toxins that could lead to cancer. Your allergies just might be protecting you.
Paul W. Sherman, Erica Holland, and Janet Shellman Sherman, "Allergies: Their Role in Cancer Prevention," The Quarterly Review of Biology 83, no. 4 (December 2008): 339-362.
Understanding Cancer Series: The Immune System