Food Allergies and Intolerances
The Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN) estimates that 12 million Americans are allergic to one or more foods. For some of these people, food allergies are a moderate annoyance. For others, it can be debilitating and even deadly. When someone has a food allergy, their immune system mistakenly attacks certain food proteins. Typically, the first time the offending food is eaten, the immune system creates an army of antibodies called immunoglobulin E (IgE). The next time you eat that food, these IgE antibodies trigger the release of histamine in an effort to rid the body of what it thinks is a foreign invader. A mild allergic reaction can show up as a rash, eczema, or changes in the stool. A more serious reaction can include vomiting, diarrhea, hives, and a relentless runny nose with facial swelling and sneezing. The most severe allergic reaction, called anaphylaxis, can be fatal. The most common food allergens include milk, eggs, wheat, soy, peanuts, and tree nuts.
A food allergy can manifest itself at any age so just because problems didn’t arise when you were young doesn’t mean you will never become allergic to a certain food or foods. Avoiding allergens requires constant vigilance, and that means reading ingredient labels on food. Unlike a food sensitivity or an intolerance, a true food allergy requires strict avoidance 24/7. In case of accidental exposure, it’s smart to plan ahead. Always carry injectable epinephrine with you if it has been prescribed, along with instructions for using it. Eating out can be especially challenging since hidden ingredients, cross-contamination, and an uninformed kitchen staff can easily trigger a reaction in restaurants. You can minimize this by speaking to the manager about your allergies and by providing the kitchen staff with a card that lists the foods you cannot eat. You can find a customizable chef’s card template at foodallergy.org.
If you suspect that you have a food allergy, it’s important to see your doctor and get tested. It’s also important to keep a food diary listing any reactions to specific foods and bring it with you when you go in for an evaluation. The most common way to diagnose a food allergy in conventional medicine is with a “prick” or “scratch” test. A diluted extract of the suspected food is placed on the skin, then that area is scratched with a needle. If the area becomes red or inflamed, it’s a good bet that the patient has the IgE antibody that is specific for the food being tested. As a follow up, your allergist may recommend a food elimination diet that removes the suspicious foods to see if the reaction goes away. The foods are then gradually re-introduced one at a time to see if problems occur. While the skin test may reveal some overt allergy issues, it is not reliable to detect more subtle intolerances. In these cases, food allergy elimination work may need to come first, and once your particular symptoms resolve, you can challenge the foods by reintroducing them one by one, and then looking for symptoms that suggest reaction to the food. For safety, food challenges should be monitored by a physician in case there are true food allergies present as well as intolerances.
Digestive enzymes: are proteins that act as catalysts for the complicated task of digestion. While not intended for those with a true food allergy, digestive enzymes can help those with food intolerances handle the occasional exposure. While there are specific enzyme supplements for lactose or gluten intolerances, taking a broad-spectrum supplement helps your body more fully process the food you eat. Enzymes also help reduce leaky gut and food sensitivities because there is less irritation in the small intestine. Look for an enzyme product that contains a broad array of enzymes and lists the activity units on the Supplement Facts panel; the higher the activity units, the more powerful the enzyme. Typical dosage: Take 1 to 2 capsules with each meal.
Probiotics: help fortify gut health and may reduce the risk of food allergies, according to a preliminary study in the Journal of Nutrition. One possible explanation for this is probiotics ability to strengthen intestinal walls and prevent leaky gut syndrome. Typical dosage: At least 1 billion CFU of a multi-strain