Food Intolerance Or Food Allergy?

SingleMum.com.au Expert Opinion Panel|Dan Davis – Nutritional Therapist

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Food Intolerance Or Food Allergy?

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Dan Davis, Nutritional Therapist,
for SingleMum.com.au | 26 September 2011

It is not uncommon to be sensitive to certain foods, and it is not uncommon for a food intolerance to be confused with an allergy. It is true that both can have similar symptoms and both have a link to the digestive system, but the two are different conditions.

Lets begin with allergy.

A true food allergy will cause immediate or very very quick reaction from the immune system. The allergic reaction can be severe, often life threatening. Signs and symptoms may include nausea, vomiting, stomach cramps, diarrhoea, hives and swelling of the face, lips, tongue and throat. Sore, red and itchy eyes, runny nose, rashes and skin flushes. A serious reaction may cause anaphylaxis which may cause extremely low blood pressure or dangerous breathing difficulties.
The exact reasons behind a persons food allergy are really not fully understood. It is believed that these sensitivities may develop before birth. There is a link with other inflammatory conditions, it is thought that people with asthma or eczema are more at risk of developing a food allergy. Your risk is also increased if a family member has an allergy or one or more of these conditions, although they may not be the same allergy.

Suspected allergies should be discussed with your medical physician or a specialist allergy clinic. There are several tests that can performed to help pin point the offending food which includes a skin prick test, elimination and challenge diets or blood tests to measure food-specific antibodies in your blood. Mild food allergies may possibly be treated with antihistamines, but you must discuss drug treatment with your doctor or specialist.

Common food allergens include milk, egg, nuts (all varieties), fish, shellfish, wheat and soy. It is also not uncommon to be allergic to food additives and preservatives, so watch those ‘E’numbers.

It is possible, especially in children, for a person to ‘outgrow’ their allergy although this is less likely to be true of allergies to fish and nuts. That said, there aren’t cures for food allergies. The only real treatment is to remove the food completely from the diet. This will mean very careful food planning. It is vitally important to read all food labels and observe the lists of allergens that may have come into contact during manufacture. Remember, most food processing factories produce more than one product.

Moving on to food intolerance.

Generally, symptoms of a food intolerance rise slower than an allergic reaction, but can be just as distressing and uncomfortable, especially for children. The list of symptoms that may be linked is extensive. Many of the following conditions would be treated individually without any consideration to test for food intolerance

  • Constant Chest infections
  • Asthma
  • Fluid retention
  • Runny nose
  • Excessive mucous
  • Recurring ear infections
  • Sleep conditions
  • Drowsiness after eating
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • IBS
  • Evidence of undigested food in the stool
  • Bloating and excess gas
  • PMS
  • Poor blood sugar balance
  • Inability to lose weight
  • Depression
  • Lack of concentration
  • Irritability
  • Anxiety
  • Aggression
  • Hyperactivity (Adults and Children)
  • Eczema
  • Failure to thrive in infants

One such area of study of food intolerance that I am very interested in is the possible link to mental health conditions. One German study compared mental health patients suffering with depression to adult hospital staff members. It found specific links to the depressed subjects and reactions to certain foods. In some areas of the health industry use food intolerance to treat symptoms or depression, insomnia, anxiety, panic attacks, daytime drowsiness, hyperactivity, irritability and outbursts of anger. The last three conditions are commonly seen in children.

What causes and food intolerance? Commonly, a food intolerance is born of a break down in digestive health. Leaky gut is a term you may have heard before. It is linked to several conditions such as arthritis, eczema and irritable bowel. I’ll try to describe it in simple terms. The lining of our intestines is designed to absorb digested food and nutrients in a specific way through the millions of cells that line the gut. They are tightly packed to ensure the process functions properly and only digested food particles are absorbed, through the cells, to nourish our bodies with what they need. In a leaky gut the intestinal lining becomes damaged, the cells aren’t packed as tight and particles of undigested or partially digested food can find their way into the blood stream. These particles are not recognised and seem as foreign, which initiates an immune response, attacking them to remove them from the body. After several of these immune responses the particular food is seen as dangerous, the immune system reacting every time it is recognised. Thus, the body is intolerant to it.

The gut lining can become compromised in several different ways. A bacterial infection, overgrowth of fungus, yeast or candida or parasite infection. Some drugs and medications can damage the gut lining, aspirin and ibuprofen being possible examples. The use of antibiotics may indirectly be of concern. Whilst fighting an infection, the drugs also kill of the good bacteria in the gut, leaving the chance of harmful bacteria and fungus to grow and further damage the lining.

Those with chronic stress may find that they are prone to food intolerance, as excess stress is linked to damage of the digestive tract also. Allergies and intolerances tend to worsen during times of particular stress.

The following factors have also been linked to food intolerance and to some extent some allergies. Nearly all can be addressed by lifestyle and diet changes.

  • Eating same foods constantly
  • Weaning too early
  • Early introduction of solid food and dairy
  • Eating preservatives and additives (E numbers)
  • Anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAID’s)
  • Stress
  • Family history of allergies
  • Excess alcohol
  • Smoking
  • Blood sugar imbalances
  • Low production of digestive enzymes and stomach acid
  • Sluggish liver and poor detoxification
  • Poor levels of healthy gut bacteria or overgrowth of ‘bad’ bacteria ie Candida
  • After viral or bacterial infections

The action plan for food intolerances is a slow process. But it is possible in some instances to be able to eat the foods that cause the reactions after a period of treatment. Follow the four R’s of digestive treatment.

1- Remove:

Avoid totally any foods that you believe trigger your immune system reaction. Most people would have an idea what these foods are, but a process of elimination is essential to find all of the offending foods. Also remove alcohol and fizzy drinks and take the time to discuss with your doctor any medications you are taking as they may be able to prescribe alternatives that are less irritable. Avoid as many artificial ingredients from your diet, this includes sweeteners, preservatives, MSG and additives.

2- Replace:

Introduce a natural diet including fresh fruit, vegetables, meat, fish and poultry. Of course only if the foods are not on your avoid list. Supplement your diet with digestive enzymes, these are naturally produced when we eat but people who have gut damage or are highly stressed produce less than healthy people. It may be necessary to take a hydrochloric acid capsule with each meal. This is basically stomach acid, which again can be reduced in people with poor digestion and high stress levels. A local nutrition expert should be consulted before using.

3- Re-inoculate:

Healthy gut bacteria may be affected after a course of anti-biotics, frequent use of anti-inflammatory drugs, oral contraceptives and other medications. A good quality probiotic supplement should be taken for at least a month. Again, seek advice from a nutrition expert to find a good quality, suitable type.

4- Repair:

It is essential to repair the gut before even considering reintroducing any offending foods. Supplements for gut repair include, a good quality anti-oxidant complex, omega 3 fatty acids, glutamine, magnesium and selenium (can be part of a multi-nutrient supplement). Aloe vera juice is known to sooth and aid repair. and the herbs Curcumin and Boswella have anti-inflammatory effects that support digestive health.
As always, consult your doctor or physician before beginning any course of self treatment, or contact a local nutritional therapist who will tailor a program to your specific condition.

Wishing you the best of health. Dan

This article contains general information only. For advice regarding your own personal circumstances, always seek individual advice from a qualified professional. Read the full singlemum.com.au Disclaimer here

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