These days, it seems we all have a friend who is “allergic” to a specific food group, and has seen huge improvements in their health since swearing off the evil substance forever. Usually its gluten that’s the devil, but it could be anything from cheese to sugar to caffeine…
Is this something to be taken seriously, or another new-age fad?
Recent research suggests that, while food allergies are real, their self-diagnosis is a little out of control. In one experiment, only half of the people who said they had an allergy were actually allergic to a specific type of food.
That’s not to say that those who are claiming allergies are not caused any kind of discomfort by the offending edibles – they are. But a lot of people who describe themselves as allergic are actually intolerant.
So what’s the difference?
Food Allergies Can Kill You
Simply put, being allergic to a food group, usually a protein of some kind can put you in mortal danger. When you consume the particular allergen, your body’s immune system incorrectly identifies it as toxic, and manufactures powerful chemicals called histamines. These are designed to expel the allergen protein, which your body thinks is an invading attacker.
The response can be mild to severe, depending on how many types of histamine and other disease-fighting antibodies are created. Over time, your immune system may make more of these so that your reactions are far more serious.
With a shellfish allergy for example, you might splash out on a lobster platter one night after you’ve struck it lucky playing at an online casino, and then have a near-death experience the next time you eat a single prawn. Depending on where the histamine is released, you might experience a reaction on your skin such as hives, diarrhoea or other gastrointestinal tract issues, or respiratory difficulties. None of which are fun. However, the most severe response is anaphylaxis, which causes body systems to shut down, and can result in death if not treated quickly.
Intolerances are Unpleasant
Intolerances to food are caused by several different factors, such as the absence of an enzyme that the body needs to digest food properly, or irritable bowel syndrome. The response is pretty much limited to the digestive, rather than the immune system.
The symptoms of an intolerance are not pleasant, and include nausea, vomiting, cramps, bloating, gas, heartburn, diarrhoea, headaches, anxiousness and irritability. Intolerances are certainly not fun, but they are also very unlikely to kill you.
A lot of the time, someone with a sensitivity can consume a small amount of the food without a problem. For instance, if you’re lactose-intolerant, you might be able to have milk in your coffee without discomfort, but will be in pain (or a pain!) if you down an entire glass of the stuff.
On the other hand, there are plenty of stories about people with peanut allergies who went into anaphylaxis after eating something that didn’t contain the nuts themselves, but was made in a factory where the little death traps were used. In these cases, tiny particles left in the air or on equipment are enough to be lethal.
Living With Food Sensitivities
Intolerances might not be mortally dangerous, but they can still affect your quality of life. Whether you’re allergic or intolerant to fish, nuts, milk, gluten or another protein, you need to deal with it in a way that works for you and your lifestyle.
Read the labels of whatever you eat, even if it’s something you’ve had before. Ingredients in products can change over time, and you’ve got to stay vigilant. If you have an allergy, your doctor might also want you to carry an emergency epinephrine shot with you at all times.
For someone with lactose intolerance, the solution might be as simple as taking Lactaid or some other brand of lactase enzyme pills, which can be all the help the digestive system needs. Ultimately, you might need to adopt something of a trial-and-error approach. But if you experience any kind of unpleasant reaction, especially if there is a history of allergies in your family, make sure you adopt this approach with your doctor.
Your physician or health professional will know what tests to administer and what referrals to make, so you can get help with specific dietary changes or medication to deal with whatever kind of sensitivity you have. Don’t let yourself get too bogged down in it; these are real issues but millions of people successfully face these challenges every day and live to tell the tale.