Allergic Responses to Common Foods Increase Risk of Heart Disease, Death

November 9, 2023
A glass of milk alone on a blue background

Allergic reactions to foods like milk, shrimp and peanuts – even asymptomatic reactions – could increase the risk for cardiovascular death, UVA researchers have discovered. (Illustration by Emily Faith Morgan, University Communications)

New research suggests sensitivity to common food allergens such as dairy and peanuts could be an important and previously unappreciated cause of heart disease, and the increased risk for cardiovascular death even includes people without obvious food allergies.

That increased risk could equal – or exceed – the risks posed by smoking, as well as diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis, the researchers report.

UVA Health scientists and their collaborators looked at thousands of adults over time and found that people who produced antibodies in response to dairy and other foods were at elevated risk of cardiovascular-related death. This was true even when traditional risk factors for heart disease, such as smoking, high blood pressure and diabetes, were taken into account.

The strongest link was for those sensitive to cow’s milk, but other allergens such as peanuts and shrimp were also significant. The troubling finding represents the first time that “IgE” antibodies to common foods have been linked to increased risk of cardiovascular mortality, the researchers report.

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The findings do not conclusively prove that food antibodies are causing the increased risk, but the work builds on prior studies connecting allergic inflammation and heart disease.

Approximately 15% of adults produce IgE antibodies in response to cow’s milk, peanuts and other foods. While these antibodies cause some people to have severe food allergies, many adults who make these antibodies have no obvious food allergy symptoms.

The new research found that the strongest link with cardiovascular death was found in people who had the antibodies, but continued to consume the food regularly – suggesting their allergies were not severe.

“What we looked at here was the presence of IgE antibodies to food that were detected in blood samples,” said researcher Dr. Jeffrey Wilson, an allergy and immunology expert at the University of Virginia School of Medicine. “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.”

Unexpected Food Findings

The researchers were inspired to investigate common food allergies harming the heart after members of the UVA team previously linked an unusual form of food allergy spread by ticks to heart disease. That allergy, first identified by UVA’s Dr. Thomas Platts-Mills, is transmitted by the bite of the lone star tick, found throughout much of the country.

The allergy – commonly, if inaccurately, called the “red meat allergy” – sensitizes people to a particular sugar, alpha-gal, found in mammalian meat. The symptomatic form of the allergy, known as “alpha-gal syndrome,” can cause hives, upset stomach and breathing difficulties – even potentially deadly anaphylaxis – three to eight hours after affected people eat beef or pork.

Poultry and fish don’t contain the sugar, so they don’t trigger a reaction.

To see if other food allergies could affect the heart, a team including Wilson, Platts-Mills and collaborators from UVA, as well as Dr. Corinne Keet, of the University of North Carolina, reviewed data collected from 5,374 participants in the National Health and Examination Survey, or NHANES, and the Wake Forest site of the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis, or MESA. 

Of those survey participants, 285 had died from cardiovascular causes.

Among the NHANES participants, IgE antibodies to at least one food was associated with a significantly higher risk of cardiovascular death, the researchers found. This was particularly true for people sensitive to milk, a finding that held true among the MESA participants as well.

Jeff Wilson

Dr. Jeff Wilson, of UVA Health, helped lead the research team. He said about 15% of adults produce particular antibodies in response to foods, and those antibodies could have a negative impact cardiovascular health. (Contributed photo)

Additional analysis also identified peanut and shrimp sensitization as significant risk factors for cardiovascular death in those individuals who routinely ate them.

“We previously noted a link between allergic antibodies to the alpha-gal red meat allergen and heart disease,” Wilson explained. “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.”

Allergic Antibodies and Heart Disease

While this is the first time that allergic antibodies to common foods have been linked to cardiovascular mortality, other allergic conditions – such as asthma and the itchy rash known as eczema or atopic dermatitis – previously have been identified as risk factors for cardiovascular disease.

The researchers speculate that allergic antibodies to food may be affecting the heart by leading to the activation of specialized cells, called mast cells. Mast cells in the skin and gut are known to contribute to classic allergic reactions, but they are also found in the cardiac blood vessels and heart tissue. Persistent activation of mast cells could drive inflammation, contributing to harmful plaque buildup that can cause heart attacks or other heart damage, the researchers believe.

The scientists underscore, however, that other genetic or environmental factors could be at play. It’s even possible that cardiovascular disease could increase the risk for food sensitization – meaning that heart disease could up your risk for food allergies, rather than the other way round. The new results, however, suggest this is unlikely.

The researchers are calling for further studies to better understand the implications of their finding before recommending any changes in how doctors treat or manage food allergies.

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

Findings Published

The researchers published their findings in the leading allergy journal, Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. The research team consisted of Keet, Emily McGowan, David Jacobs, Wendy Post, Nathan Richards, Lisa Workman, Platts-Mills, Ani Manichaikul and Wilson.

Wilson and Platts-Mills have received support from Thermo-Fisher/Phadia; a full list of the authors’ disclosures is included in the paper.

The research was supported by the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, grants 5U01AI125290, R37-AI20565 and R21AI151497; and by an AAAAI Foundation Faculty Development Award. A list of the financial backers of the MESA trial is available in the paper.

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Media Contact

Josh Barney

UVA Health