Food Allergies and Sensitivities explained.
Food allergies and sensitivities are a very common cause of a broad range of health concerns from irritable bowel to migraines. I remember very early in my career an older woman who came to see me, that had been suffering with depression and muscle pain for over 15 years. I ran a food allergy test and found out that she had developed a gluten allergy. She went off gluten and told me two weeks later that both her muscle pain and depression were completely gone. Finding the source of an individual’s suffering is not always so simple but for this woman a simple test done 15 years previously would have saved her a lot of grief.
A food intolerance is when an individual develops symptoms such as headaches, bouts of fatigue, indigestion, gas and bloating, irritability, and water retention from commonly eaten foods such as milk, wheat, corn, eggs (often developed in that order). The actual cause of an intolerance is unknown, and most likely is related to a mix of different factors from the terrain of your gut to how your biochemistry and digestive system are functioning. New sensitivities develop over time and can be precipitated by illness, antibiotics, stress, or a simple trip to Mexico and the ensuing Montezuma’s revenge. It is common to have between 1-5 food sensitivities and in more severe cases up to 20 or 30 foods. It is not unusual for a person to react to a food on one occasion and not on another with the reaction depending on various factors such as amount eaten, how often the food is eaten, what the food is mixed with and level of stress. Food reactions are slow; it can take hours even up to 48 hours for bowel issues and because foods are eaten so often there is no obvious link between foods eaten and symptoms.
An allergy is any reaction that takes place in the body in which the immune system is involved. Common symptoms include asthma, hay fever, constant runny or congested nose, chronic ear infections, sinusitis, nasal polyps, postnasal drip, hives, eczema and irritable bowel. There are immediate IgE and delayed IgG mediated food allergies. With IgG mediated or delayed allergies it can be several hours to days before symptoms manifest and they are very similar to the food intolerance symptoms listed above. From years of testing both immediate and delayed food allergies, the most common food allergies are eggs, dairy, gluten, shellfish and nuts.
We know allergies run in families and tend to start early. They can start from in-utero exposure, or a bit later from breast milk, or upon the first consumption of food. In any allergic disease, there tends to be multiple allergens at work. For example a child may have improvement of eczema after removal of milk and eggs from the diet, but only lose all symptoms when on vacation from the family dog.
Elimination of the offending foods for both an intolerance or an allergy for 2 weeks and subsequent reintroduction cause more prompt and severe reactions such as hives, diarrhea, nausea, gastric pain, gas, bloating, and headaches. People tend to crave food intolerances and will have “withdrawal reactions” when the food is eliminated from the diet up to 7 days. Cravings tend to disappear within 2 weeks; however with the first introduction of the food, the cravings will reappear. Generally a person’s health will gradually deteriorate over time if food allergies or sensitivities are not dealt with. Unlike food allergies, food sensitivities cannot be measured by any standard medical testing and are determined by working through a “food elimination diet”.
The standard test for allergies is the skin-prick test, which looks at how the skin reacts to a range of common allergens. Allergen extracts derived from pure samples of foods, pollens, and dust are used. A drop of the allergen is placed on the arm or back and a scratch made in the skin below the drop allows a minute amount of allergen to enter the system. If the patient is sensitive to the allergen, a marked reaction will occur called a wheal-and-flare response. Skin scratch tests work well for some types of allergens such as airborne and topical, however do not work well for foods unless the patient reaction is immediate and violent such as anaphylactic type. The cause may be that the allergic reaction is local to a part of the body and does not enter the blood stream and would not show up in the skin. Hence, the test of choice for delayed allergies is an IgG Enzyme Linked Immunosorbant Assay (ELISA) test that measures the levels of antibodies in blood that a person is producing towards a specific substance. The ELISA test is performed on your blood and a simple blood draw or finger poke is all that is required.
There are more alternative forms of testing such as the antigen leukocyte antibody test that measures the body’s white blood cell response to challenges from a wide array of substances including foods, additives, colorings and chemicals. The individual’s cellular reactivity after exposure of the blood sample to the various test agents, versus a baseline control, tells which substances may be causing a sensitivity-related response in the body. I find this test useful when assessing a person’s reactivity to chemicals, food additives, preservatives and molds. Detective work is required to find out all of the offending substances.
Allergies and sensitivities have slightly different treatment protocols. In both cases it is important to heal any “dysbiosis” or imbalanced gut flora. I often find that people will have an overgrowth of yeast, bacteria or parasites that cause inflammation of the gut lining. This allows larger food molecules to enter the blood stream causing the immune system to react. A deficiency of your good bacteria can also be a problem and is common because of our prolific use of antibiotics. Often, with a bit of dedication people are able to heal the underlying cause of the allergy or intolerance and are able to go back to eating a variety of foods. In the meantime avoiding the foods will eliminate the troubling health symptoms.