It is estimated that approximately 15 million Americans and over 17 million Europeans have food allergies. In the U.S.A. food allergies are common in children, affecting 1 in every 13 under the age of 18. With the rise of convenience and processed foods coupled with pollution, chemicals and pesticides that our food is exposed to, there is an on-going debate whether these factors have a direct link to the rapid rise in food allergens and sensitivities.
Food allergies, intolerances and sensitivities are similar in that they are in the family of negative reactions to food, however the severity of the reaction can be drastically different. With an allergic reaction, the body’s immune system (our defense system) overreacts to a perceived danger. The system sees the protein (egg, wheat, gluten, soy, etc.) as a danger like it would with a bacterium or a virus and creates a special “fighter” protein antibodies designed to identify and neutralize the dangerous “enemy”. The “fighter” protein are called immunoglobulin E or IgE and their purpose is to seek and destroy the enemy or invader by creating one or more of allergic reactions: hives, dizziness, itchy throat, diarrhea, stomach ache, rash, constricted breathing or in extreme cases anaphylactic shock which can be fatal. The IgE proteins are the most aggressive antibodies in the body and their response occurs within seconds or minutes. The immediacy of the IgE response is the defining characteristic of an allergic reaction.
Food sensitivities are also on the rise in the Western world but harder to quantify given the variability and timing of responses. Food sensitivities are like the half-sister of allergies in that they start out in a similar way. A protein introduced to a person with a food sensitivity system and perceived as a threat. This person’s system will create a different fighter protein known as Immunglobulin G or IgG. The IgG and IgE antibodies play similar roles and often have overlapping symptoms but the crucial distinguishing feature is their reaction time. The IgG antibodies are less aggressive and produce a delayed response that can occur hours or even days after the offending food has been consumed. Common food sensitivity symptoms can include bloating, gas, fatigue, brain fog, muscle and joint pain, itchy skin and skin rashes like eczema, chronic runny nose, congestion and sleeplessness.
Given the response time of food sensitivities they are often difficult to pin point and diagnose. While blood tests do exist in the market, one of the best ways to discover food intolerances or sensitivities is through an elimination diet. On such plans, individuals eliminate the common food triggers (dairy, gluten, soy, corn, eggs, peanuts, shellfish) and any other foods they might believe are problematic. They stick to a limited food plan of “safe” foods often prepared very simply (grilled, steamed, roasted, boiled) for a period of time, generally 3-4 weeks then slowly re-introduce one food at time. The re-introduction phase can be long but it is important to give the food time to “react” and see how the body responds to the food after being on a “trigger food fast”. Typically it is recommended that individual wait 4 days, between re-introductions to see or feel if there is a reaction. Often over the elimination period symptoms have drastically reduced or have even disappeared. With the re-introduction of a possible trigger food, the symptoms can reappear but more drastically than before, which is usually a clear signal that the food in question was indeed an intolerant food for that individual.