Every time you open a magazine or read a blog, there’s always some kind of buzz about food allergies, food sensitivities or food intolerances. These days, it seems that every other person seems to be either highly reactive to foods like peanuts or announcing that they’re going gluten-free.
But what’s really going on? Is this just a new health trend, or is it that we’re becoming more allergic to life? And what on earth is the difference between a food allergy, a food intolerance or even a food sensitivity? Let’s take a look at the differences and the issues.
True food allergies are becoming much more common and it is now believed that 15% of the population will express a food allergy at some point in their lives. Possible reasons for this dramatic increase are numerous but could include: repeated, over-consumption of a limited number of foods, high levels of food additives and preservatives, pesticides, genetically modified foods, early weaning and early introduction of foods to babies.
What causes an allergic reaction? When a molecule food is seen by the body to be foreign (antigen(, it provokes an antibody attack by the immune system. The white blood cells of the immune system produce protein molecules called IgE antibodies which will bind to that antigen (or foreign substance) and trigger a release of histamines in an attempt to protect the body.
Histamines are what create swelling and allergic symptoms ranging from severe anaphylaxis (life-threatening) to arthritis, celiac disease, depression or anxiety. This type of reaction usually (but not always) occurs within a few minutes of eating a food antigen.
Symptoms typical of this type of reaction would be hives, itchy, watery eyes and difficulty breathing (throat swelling and tightening). However, individuals may also experience canker sores, chronic bladder infections, ear infections, abdominal pain, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, heartburn, asthma, eczema migraines or irregular heartbeats.
To test for this type of IgE food allergy, individuals need to be seen by an allergist and have either skin prick tests, a blood draw or oral food challenge.
A food sensitivity occurs when there is a delayed immune reaction to the food ingested. This type of delayed reaction produces IgG or IgA antibodies which can be tested for using a fairly simple blood spot test. Food sensitivity reactions create a lot of inflammation and discomfort (and possibly disease).
Food sensitivities have been linked to migraine headaches, IBS, bloating, fatigue, weight gain and eczema. IgG food reactions can take hours or days to develop, making it extremely difficult to sort out which food is the actual culprit. Sometimes sensitivities develop due to something called “leaky gut”. When the gut lining is inflamed (due to stress, medications, alcohol, etc), then food particles can leak through into the bloodstream and set off alarm bells for the immune system.
Strict elimination diets, where all the main culprits are removed and then slowly reintroduced and rotated in conjunction with nourishing foods (such as bone broths and fermented foods) to help heal and seal the leaky gut, seem to be the most effective treatment approaches for this category of food reaction.
Sometimes, individuals don’t do well with a particular food simply because of a problem they have with the enzymes, chemicals or toxins present in the food. They cannot digest the food properly or they develop symptoms such as diarrhea, gas, bloating, cramps, headaches, rashes, headaches, nausea, restlessness, agitation, tingling, etc but their immune systems aren’t involved so nothing shows up at the allergist’s office or with blood tests.
For example, if they are missing the enzyme lactase, they will not be able to digest the lactose (sugar) that is present in dairy products. If they are missing an enzyme called galactosidedase then they will have trouble digesting cruciferous vegetables or legumes. Some might be quite sensitive to chemicals such as the naturally occurring histamines found in sauerkraut, cheese or wine and others might react to the naturally occurring toxins found in foods such as peanuts (aflatoxins) or shellfish (saxitoxins).
So, what now?
Ultimately, if you suspect food allergies, sensitivities or intolerances then you should work with a healthcare practitioner to help you sort out your particular food issues and their cause. Sometimes a simple blood test and avoidance of the offending food is all it takes. Typical food culprits are: wheat (gluten), corn, soy, chocolate, citrus and dairy. Other times a comprehensive, healing diet needs to be followed or further testing for issues like parasites needs to be carried out.
At the end of the day, eating should be an enjoyable, nourishing experience that builds your health not something that tears it down.
Have you experienced allergies, sensitivities or intolerances? How have you treated them? Do you avoid certain foods or substances? We’d like to hear from you! Leave your comments below.