Food Allergies & Intolerances
Sneezing, itching skin, watery eyes, digestive disturbances…these are all the tell tale signs of allergies and intolerances. There has been a dramatic rise in allergies over the past few decades, both food related and environmental.
It is important to understand that food intolerance is different to food allergy. In the case of intolerance, the reaction is not immediate and the symptoms can be many and varied, whereas allergies give rise to reactions that tend to be immediate and more severe.
Allergies are common in children and many adults also suffer from allergies. Food allergy has been estimated to occur in around 1 in 20 children compared to only 1 in 100 adults. However, the incidence continues to rise, with a study released in 2011 finding that 8% of 38,000 children surveyed were allergic to at least 1 food. Estimates for people suffering from food intolerance are far higher.
There has also been a fivefold increase in hospital admissions for anaphylaxis over the past decade. Anaphylaxis is a severe allergy that can be life threatening. Common foods that cause anaphylactic reactions are peanuts, egg and shellfish, while bee stings are another common cause. People with these severe allergies usually carry an Epipen (containing a shot of adrenalin) which can be lifesaving first aid in cases of accidental exposure to allergens.
Food intolerance is less severe but far more pervasive and often gives rise to chronic health issues. Common problems such as gluten intolerance (coeliac disease) and lactose intolerance are well known, however food intolerance to other foods is also widespread. Symptoms of food intolerance are the result of an overloaded immune system and often involve poor digestive function.
- digestive issues (bloating, wind, constipation or diarrhoea)
- restless sleep
- frequent colds
There are many theories behind the rise in food allergies. These include the hygiene hypothesis – which states that we have distorted our immune function through lack of exposure to common bacteria. Our modern day obsession with hygiene and ‘antibacterial everything’ has actually lead to an imbalance in the immune system that favours the development of allergies. Challenges to the immune system by everyday bacteria are necessary for the development of normal immune function, particularly in children. Studies, for instance, have shown that children who live on farms or have pets are much less likely to suffer from allergies. Other theories relate to digestive function and the use of antibiotics, which can upset the normal gut flora and can promote inflammation and increased permeability of the gut to common foods.
Diagnosing food allergy or intolerance can involve different approaches. Traditional testing for IgE allergies (including anaphylaxis) normally involves skin scratch tests. Tests for food intolerance are now available and practitioners specialising in allergy can perform these in their clinic with a small skin prick blood sample. These food intolerance tests detect IgG or IgA antibodies to a range of common foods. While I use these tests in my clinic, I often find that doing a food elimination process followed by a food challenge will also give clear indications as to what foods are contributing to symptoms. The food intolerance blood tests cost between $250-$400, so the challenge is sometimes more affordable for some patients.
Once an allergen or food intolerance has been identified (either through a test or exclusion process), management normally involves avoiding the food for an extended period of time. In the case of anaphylaxis, normally the food needs to be strictly avoided for life. Though I have had quite a few adult patients who seem to have grown out of their severe food allergies that they had as a child. However, it is clearly not wise to experiment with food allergens that can cause anaphylaxis.
Naturopathic treatment of allergies and intolerances also involves nutrients and herbs for healing the gut and supporting the immune system. Improving the microbiome of the gut is also essential to help heal and reduce inflammation. When done properly, intolerant foods can often be reintroduced without causing a reaction and they can then be included back into the diet. In some cases, however, people do better when they continue to avoid the food or only have it occasionally.
If you have lingering or unexplained health complaints, consider the quality of your diet and the possibility that food intolerance may be a feature. Come in for a visit and I can assess your case and recommend either testing or simple changes to your diet to establish what might be causing your health issues.