Food allergies, sensitivities or intolerances are increasingly common. You’ve heard of nut-free schools and gluten-free foods, and yes- some people truly need to avoid even the most insignificant traces of these foods. In fact, millions of Americans experience allergic reactions to foods every year. While most reactions are mild, some can be life-threatening and require emergency treatment or hospitalization.
Where do food allergies and sensitivities come from? How do we know whether our symptoms are from an allergy or sensitivity? What are the best ways to prevent, treat, and live with them? Keep reading to find all the essential answers in this blog post.
Food allergies are simply an abnormal response to food that’s triggered by the immune system (the system that fights infections). It happens when the immune system mistakes a non-harmful food, like peanuts or tree nuts, shellfish, milk, soy, fish, eggs, wheat for example, for a serious invader and overreacts to it.
Food allergies are not dose dependent, which means even a small amount of the food can cause a reaction and usually produces an immediate onset of symptom. The symptoms you could experience include difficulty breathing or shortness of breath, wheezing. swelling of the tongue, tight throat, trouble swallowing, dizziness, weak pulse/drop in blood pressure, symptoms of shock such as skin rash (hives) and flushed skin or anaphylaxis which can be life threatening! The immune system creates a specific type of compound called an IgE antibody that is responsible for most of the symptoms of true allergies. These IgE-mediated allergic reactions can be non-serious or serious and life-threatening.
Anaphylaxis Or Anaphylactic Shock
Anaphylactic Shock is commonly a nearly immediate, life-threatening reaction that can occur when exposed to specific foods, medications, or stinging insects (e.g., bees). Symptoms can include sneezing, coughing, itching, hives, swelling, blood pressure drop, abdominal pain, dizziness, tightness in the throat, and shortness of breath. The main treatment for an anaphylactic reaction is an epinephrine auto-injector and emergency medical assistance by calling 9-1-1. Understanding and avoiding what caused your reaction is necessary to prevent future life-threatening reactions which may be even worse than the first episode.
In an allergic reaction, the production of IgE antibodies is triggered by a protein in the offending food. Any food has the potential to cause an allergic response, however, there is a short list of foods that account for most reactions. These common food allergens must be declared on package labels, according to the FDA. Common food allergens include:
● Tree nuts (e.g., almonds, walnuts, pecans)
● Fish (e.g., cod, bass, flounder)
● Shellfish (e.g., crab, lobster, shrimp)
Oral Allergy Syndrome Or Pollen-food Allergy Syndrome
When symptoms such as rash, itching, sneezing, and swelling occur around the mouth, lips, and tongue, this is called oral allergy syndrome. Foods commonly associated with this syndrome include raw apples, bananas, cherries, kiwis, peaches, celery, tomatoes, potatoes, melons, and hazelnuts. This type of allergic reaction is not life-threatening and is common among those who are also allergic to grass and ragweed pollen (hence the name pollen-food allergy syndrome). Cooking the fruit or vegetable often reduces the symptoms because the heat breaks down the proteins responsible for this type of non-life-threatening reaction. Allergies are often first noticed during childhood but they can develop at any age and may last for a lifetime. Mild allergic reactions to food may result in more serious symptoms the next time it is eaten. So, after your first reaction—even if it’s mild—it’s important to speak with your healthcare provider to see if you should go for allergy testing or carry emergency medication (more on this below).
It’s unclear exactly where food allergies come from. Research shows that they could partly be genetic. The bacteria in your gut, and your gut microbiota may also influence your chance of developing food allergies. Contrary to popular belief, new studies show that introducing young children to peanuts may reduce their chances of developing serious peanut allergies. Always speak with your healthcare provider before introducing your child to peanuts.
Many food sensitivities or intolerances are often mistaken for allergies, hence the importance of proper testing. Food intolerances can cause many symptoms after eating offending foods but what differs is that these symptoms are not the result of the IgE antibodies. That’s what makes them sensitive and not an allergy.
Unlike food allergies, sensitivities are dose-dependent, meaning that the severity of the reaction may depend on the amount of the offending food consumed. The other major difference is that whereas allergic reactions are immediate, food sensitivity reactions can have a delayed onset of up to 3 days. Due to the delayed onset of symptoms, sensitivities can often be harder to identify.
Symptoms of food sensitivities include but are not limited to joint pain, arthritis, bloating, constipation, diarrhea, vomiting, stomach pain, behavioral issues, migraines or frequent headaches, skin conditions like rashes or hives, disorganized thinking “brain fog”, memory disturbances, and fatigue.
If food allergies have already been identified and avoided but there is suspicion that other foods are causing unpleasant symptoms, Innovative Nutrition recommends utilizing a specialized type of food sensitivity testing called Mediated Release Testing. MRT tests for 170 foods and food chemicals that may negatively impact or be at the root of many conditions such as Eczema, Psoriasis, ADD/ADHD, Fibromyalgia, IBS, Asthma or food induced bronchitis as well as others. More information on MRT food sensitivity panel CLICK HERE!
Lactose is a natural sugar found in milk that can cause gas to build up in the gastrointestinal tract. This is not an allergy, but rather an inability to effectively digest it. Lactose is a two-part sugar molecule that needs the enzyme lactase to break it down. When someone does not have enough active lactase in their digestive tract, lactose remains intact and causes abdominal pain, nausea, excess gas, bloating, and diarrhea.
Celiac Disease or Gluten Intolerance
Gluten is a protein found in many grains such as wheat, rye, and barley. While intolerance to gluten involves the immune system, it differs from allergies by the specific antibodies involved because as mentioned above: allergies involve IgE antibodies, while gluten intolerance does not.
Living With Food Allergies And Sensitivities
The best way to deal with food allergies and sensitivities is to avoid the foods that cause reactions for you. Here are some strategies to deal with them effectively.
1. Test, Don’t Guess! Click the link for allergy and food sensitivity testing
2. Read your food labels carefully. Luckily most pre-packaged foods must clearly identify if they contain any of the major food allergens (or contain the immune-triggering protein of the major food allergens) which will aid in avoiding certain allergens. Check the nutrition facts label on products for “allergen-free” claims, and also for statements like “may contain” or “produced in a facility that also uses.”
3. Wash your hands, surfaces, dishes, and utensils well to prevent accidental cross-contamination between offending foods and other foods.
4. If you’re eating out, confirm whether the meal is free from the food you’re allergic to before placing your order.
5. Food allergens may also be added to certain medications and cosmetics, so check those labels or ask your pharmacist before purchasing. Use the EWG Healthy Living app to scan cosmetics and cleaning products.
6. If you experience an anaphylactic reaction, the FDA says that “Persons with a known food allergy who begin experiencing symptoms while, or after, eating a food should initiate treatment immediately, and go to a nearby emergency room if symptoms progress.”
7. If you have had a serious anaphylactic reaction, it’s important to carry an epinephrine auto-injector in case of accidental exposure. This is a lifesaving medication that can help maintain your blood pressure and restore your ability to breathe. You can ask your pharmacist whether a prescription from a medical doctor is needed or not. Be sure to learn how to use it properly and replace it as it reaches the expiry date.
8. Anaphylaxis is a condition where you may consider wearing a medical alert bracelet or necklace.
9. When managing lactose intolerance, all milk products do not need to be strictly avoided, provided they are consumed with the lactase enzyme (available as a dietary supplement) or have been pre-treated with the lactase enzyme (e.g., lactose-free milk). These ensure that the lactose has already been broken down for you and should not cause symptoms of intolerance.
10. If you believe that you may have a food allergy or sensitivity, see your healthcare provider to discuss getting tested.
Food allergies and sensitivities are increasingly common. There are several different kinds and most are not serious or life-threatening, however, they all cause unwelcome symptoms. As a general rule, avoiding offending foods is highly recommended. This post contains several essential tips on how to live with food allergies and sensitivities.
If you believe you have a serious food allergy, it’s critical that you see your healthcare provider determine if you need to carry emergency medication for future exposures. If you think you may be sensitive to certain foods we recommend testing as well and having specific recipes/meal plans to try.
For a customized plan designed to help you enjoy the meals you love minus the few foods that you may be allergic to or sensitive to, Innovative Nutrition can provide personalized research-based nutrition advice for your health, lifestyle, and goals. Reach out today to begin on the path to a healthier you.
Mayo Clinic. (n.d.). Lactose intolerance. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/lactose-intolerance/symptoms-causes/syc-20374232
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