Four out of the five people in my family have some sort of dietary restriction. I don't believe I am alone in this food allergies/sensitivities seem much more commonplace today than they were 20 years ago. I have a sneaking suspicion that the increasing amount of processed food in our collective diet is to blame, but the academic research is still inconclusive on this point. I have a shellfish allergy, my wife does not do well with dairy our eldest daughter develops an ichy mouth and numb tongue if she has cherries or kiwis, and our youngest daughter has ulcerative colitis (similar to Crohn's Disease) and is therefore wheat/dairy/egg free. The only one in our family with an iron stomach is our middle daughter (who can eat my cooking without complaining). All of these nuances create headaches when it comes to meal preparation.
Aside from being a nurse, my wife is a great cook and has created a number of recipes that a) meet everybody's dietary issues and b) don't taste like hospital food. She has taken this information to the internet to provide recipes for Food Allergy sufferers everywhere. In helping her research some of these foods, I found that I had always used the terms 'food allergy', 'intolerance' and 'sensitivity' interchangeably. For those of you who are wondering what the actual difference is...here goes!
A true food allergy results in an autoimmune response at the cellular level. This happens when cells in your body mistakenly recognize food as a "foreign invader"; therefore, a huge counterattack is mounted by your immune system. When this happens, the immune cells release a flood histamines into the blood steam. This sudden wash results in symptoms which may range from mild to extreme and could include rash, hives, itching, nasal congestion and watery, red, itchy eyes. Severe symptoms include abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, swelling of the face, tongue, throat, difficulty swallowing, wheezing, chest tightness, and most severe of all difficulty breathing and unconsciousness.
To combat the surge in histamines, anti-histamines (reactine, allegra, benadryl, epi-pen) are administered in an attempt to counteract the symptoms. It is interesting to note that allergy symptoms are not always instantaneous and can take as long as 48 hours to surface. This delay mechanism tends to result in confusion by the allergy sufferer as to what is causing their reaction (hence the medical practice of allergy testing).
With a food allergy, every exposure is generally more severe than the previous one. It is dangerous to assume that a previous mild reaction to a particular allergen will always generate the same result – what was at one time a mild annoyance can turn more severe with repeated exposure.
Food sensitivity (also known as ‘intolerance’) is not a cellular immune response. This is the important distinction. Having said that, it does not mean that food sensitivity cannot be just as serious – it just means that the symptoms can’t be treated with an anti-histamine. People with food sensitivities can exhibit similar symptoms (including skin rashes, abdominal pain and in very rare cases, even anaphylaxis). Commonly reported food sensitivity symptoms are abdominal pain and bloating, gas, diarrhea, constipation, wheezing, asthma, eczema, feeling foggy headed, generally feeling unwell and migraine headaches.
Some food sensitivities can be traced back to deficiencies within the body and the symptoms are common to most sufferers. For example, somebody with a lactase deficiency may have some form of lactose intolerance depending on the severity of the deficiency. Typical lactose intolerance symptoms include abdominal pain, diarrhea, gas and less commonly, bloating, internal pressure and nausea.
To complicate matters further, certain autoimmune disorders also have a food intolerance component. For example, a Celiac patient has a severe intolerance to wheat gluten and must avoid all forms of wheat, otherwise will develop anemia, cramping, chronic diarrhea and fatigue.
Other food sensitivities may have seemingly random side effects. For example, some people develop post-nasal drip after exposure to dairy. We reviewed research indicating that dairy products have absolutely no correlation with mucous production; however, many people have had their post-nasal drip symptoms “dry up” (pun intended) by eliminating dairy from the diet. In the case of ADHD (Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), a study published by Dr. Lidy Pelsser of the ADHD Research Centre in the Netherlands states that the ADHD symptoms of 64% of children were caused by food sensitivities, yet the mechanism remains unclear. There is also literature suggesting a tie between food sensitivies and autism.
How to tell if you have a food allergy or sensitivity
There are 5 ways to conclude whether you have an allergy or a sensitivity:
- Buy a kit online and do the test directly, which tends to be pretty basic and I don’t recommend it (allergy only);
- Get a Doctor’s referral to an Allergist. The Allergist will prick the skin on either the forearm or the back, and then place a tiny amount of potential allergen on top of the prick-mark. If a hive shows up, that is an indication that the patient is allergic to that particular substance (allergy only);
- Have a blood test. If certain antibodies are produced when the blood is exposed to particular substances, the allergy or sensitivity is confirmed (allergy and sensitivity);
- Elimination diet can be used to identify potential triggers. In this case, the diet starts out with a very limited number of foods that are unlikely to produce a reaction. After a period of weeks, various food groups are reintroduced one at a time to see if the patient exhibits any signs (allergy or sensitivity).
- Electro-diagnosis by your naturopath (ie vega testing) will confirm the degree of various food sensitivities (sensitivity only).
In short, food allergies and sensitivities are completely different in approach, similar in response, and can be difficult to pinpoint. While you may be convinced that you are suffering from food sensitivity, this is something that is difficult to self-diagnose. As well, you may actually have more than one sensitivity, which makes it even more complicated. If you suspect that you are suffering from either a food allergy or food sensitivity see your doctor or naturopath to help make a definitive diagnosis.
I would be interested to hear how many other families have at least 1 food sensitivity in their household. Please use the comment box below to indicate how many people are in your family and how many of those have food issues.