Food & Allergies
The terms used to describe food allergies can be confusing. In general, food allergy is when antibodies from our immune cells are produced against the offending food. This antibody response can lead to anaphylactic shock, but also causes the symptoms of hay fever, allergic asthma, atopic dermatitis (eczema), and hives. A growing number of health professionals believe food allergies in the population are grossly underestimated because an immune response can be delayed, making it difficult to associate with any one food. These responses can cause inflammation, tissue damage, and disease. There can also be reactions to food and additives that don't involve antibodies at all, referred to as food intolerance and food sensitivity. Adverse food reactions are influenced by other factors such as medications, chemicals, and stress. Unfortunately many doctors don’t have a clear understanding of how food contributes to many health problems.
To understand how food sensitivities occur one must recognize the close relationship between our immune system, the digestive tract, and what we eat. The immune system is our defense against infection and the gatekeeper of the digestive tract. Immune cells are found throughout the body, but the digestive tract; including the mouth, throat, stomach, small and large intestines; is unique in that 70% of our entire immune system is found there. Though we think of the immune system as simply fighting off infection, its job is actually more complex. Since birth our immune cells have been going to school, learning what is friend and what is foe. As food and microbes make their way through the digestive tract, the immune cells must determine what is OK and what is not. When this system of checks and balances is disrupted, uninvited guests can leak through the intestine wall and cause an immune reaction. While some may notice immediate symptoms, many do not.
This scenario, referred to as leaky gut or increased gut permeability, can lead to the health problems listed above. This process contributes to allergies. A common scenario is as follows: a food component, infection, or medication irritates the GI tract causing inflammation and leakiness; immune cells make antibodies to foods; certain foods continue to irritate the GI tract; the body will make more antibodies to various foods; various immune problems and diseases occur.
In addition to food allergies, some have allergic reactions to pollen, molds, grasses, animals, insect bites and stings. This is often true for those with a family history of allergy. Food is often an important factor in these situations. Referred to as the atopic triad; eczema, asthma, and allergic rhinitis (hay fever) are often greatly improved by addressing the diet.
An obvious question is why are an increasing number of us more reactive? One theory gaining credence is the Hygiene or Old Friend Hypothesis. It points out that allergies have correlated with cleaner living conditions. Where there are lower rates of parasitic infection there are higher rates of allergy. Modern innovations like chlorinated water, antibiotics, and vaccination are clearly associated with increased allergies. This helps explain why probiotics and treatments to restore a healthy gut can alleviate allergies and other conditions. The lesson here is clear; our modern obsession with killing bugs and using antibacterial products ad libitum is having unintended consequences. In addition, poor eating habits, medications, environmental pollutants, and stress further impair immune and digestive function.
All of us are absolutely unique. While following generic advice may provide some benefit, it may not adequately address your individual needs. It may unnecessarily restrict your diet leading to nutritional deficiencies and conditions like osteoporosis, anemia, neurological and hormonal problems. Arbitrary or “hit and miss” approaches usually don’t give a clear indication of what foods are the prime culprits. Consulting a doctor experienced with adverse food reactions can better address your situation. Once identified and treated, adverse food reactions can sometimes be eliminated allowing you to eat some of these foods again. More importantly, by addressing these issues now you can avoid many long term health problems.