Food Allergies and Sensitivities and Intolerances OH MY!
Imagine your digestive life as a walk through the woods. If you eat a food you are allergic too, it’s like stepping in a bear trap. You’re going down right away, and you might need medical attention. If you eat a food you are sensitive to, it’s like strolling through the trees with a ball and chain attached to your ankle. For a while you can muscle along with it, but it can really ruin your walk, and eventually you’re gonna collapse from exhaustion. If you eat a food you are intolerant to, it’s like tripping on a root. It hurts and slows you down for a little, but you can shake it off and get on with your walk without lasting damage.
Food Allergies (Bear Trap)
They cause an immediate (within minutes) activation of your immune system. The immune system goes into full beast mode against even the tiniest amount of food you’ve consumed. An antibody called IgE is involved, and can cause vast and varied symptoms like hives, throat swelling, nausea and vomiting, and difficulty breathing. It can be fatal if not treated promptly. 90% of food allergies are caused by “The Big Eight”: Milk, soy, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, eggs, fish, and shellfish. (1)
Food Sensitivities (Ball and Chain)
Here we have a controversial area of medicine. The literature of conventional medicine isn’t yet robust enough to declare the existence of food sensitivities as I’m about to describe them, though the writing is on the wall. I’m proud to say we naturopathic doctors (and the new field of functional medicine) tend to be ahead of the curve on this kind of thing. The mainstream will catch up soon enough. Some foods can activate the immune system without the classic allergic response, and this is largely due to a state of intestinal hyper-permeability, aptly nicknamed “leaky gut”. When the lining of the gut is compromised, small particles that belong in your intestines can have direct access to your blood stream. That doesn’t mean you’ve got a piece of last night’s chicken floating around in your blood, but evidence suggests that food particles escape and induce an immune response in some individuals. (2) Because the offending particle is now in circulation throughout your body, you can experience a huge range of symptoms like brain fog, headache, sore joints, fatigue, cramps, you name it. These are symptoms of inappropriate inflammation not only in your gut, but all over your body. Symptoms can arise several days after consumption, making them notoriously difficult to identify.
Food Intolerances (Poorly placed roots)
These don’t involve the immune system so much. The suffering they cause you is most commonly due to deficiency of certain molecules that are required for digestion and absorption of the food. For example lactose intolerance is caused by a deficiency in the enzyme lactase, which helps to break down the milk sugar lactose. Symptoms like gas, cramping, and bloating are typically restricted to the digestive tract, and resolve as when the offending food is finally out of your body.
WHAT TO DO?
If you’re old enough to read this, you already know what food allergies you have. They’re not considered to be curable exactly, but as an adult, decreasing your exposures to other allergens and toxins can help to lighten your allergic load. If your cup is already full, it only takes one drop to overflow. And it’s not too late for your kids! We know now that allergies can be prevented by introducing “the big eight” foods early in life, ensuring plenty of Vitamin D, and encouraging a diverse microbiome (let them get dirty!) (3)
Here’s some reasons I suggest you care about food sensitivities:
You feel like crap and you don’t know why (Your doctor says your labs are normal)
You have an autoimmune diagnosis, or want to decrease your chances of getting one
You react to gluten or other common allergens, or suspect you might have leaky gut
Think about it. Food allergies and sensitivities are inappropriate expressions of the immune system. Just like in autoimmunity, your body miscalculates who the enemy is and attacks an innocent bystander. A harmless food or a harmless you! The concept of an “autoimmune spectrum” has been proposed as a way to link these common pathologies, and it makes a lot of sense to me. (4) Fortunately, there are many ways to deal with food sensitivities, here’s some suggestions to get your gears churning.
This is not easy work, and I want you to succeed. Please find a naturopathic doctor, functional medicine practitioner, or nutritionist to work with you on this.
Elimination Diet! The gold standard. This diet removes trigger foods, heals the gut lining, then reintroduces foods one by one to observe your body’s response. There is no better teacher than your body. If you learn to listen, it will be more accurate than any lab test. That said,
Lab Tests! Allergic reactions involve the antibody IgE. Sensitivities on the other hand, can involve other antibodies like IgG and IgA. You can also test for a myriad of antibodies to see what mischief your body is up to. This can be very useful to know.
Food Journaling! This is a great place to start. Take charge and get curious about you. Write down the foods you consume, and the symptoms you experience. In time you’ll see patterns, and you can implement changes and feel a difference right away.
Please ask me your questions in the comments below! You have definitely got an article on leaky gut coming your way, but what else do you guys want to learn about?