Most of us know about severe food allergies. You might even know someone who suffers from a severe trigger-food allergy. The most common example is peanuts–we’ve heard the horror stories of someone eating a cookie and going into severe anaphylaxis. Their breathing is cut off as the airway swells. It happens in mere minutes and can be fatal unless the person is given an epinephrine injection with an Epi-pen.
These are the extreme cases, but as many as five percent of adults and children suffer from hidden food allergies that are less severe. Let’s explore.
While any food can cause an allergic reaction, there are a handful of foods that account for the overwhelming majority (> 90%) of food allergies. These foods include eggs, milk, peanuts, tree nuts like pecans and almonds, fish and shellfish, wheat, soy and certain seeds like sesame, pumpkin or mustard seeds.
Childhood allergies commonly seen are milk, eggs, and peanuts. Food allergies more likely to develop in adulthood are peanuts allergies, tree nut allergies, fish and shellfish and fruit and vegetable pollens.
Prepared foods may contain these products. Prepared mustard may contain bits of seeds. Products like Worcestershire sauce contains fish stock, and many products include peanut oil. In 2004, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) passed the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act, requiring food manufacturers to label products containing one of the leading trigger foods above. If you see a label that says “contains soy” or “contains wheat” or “manufactured in a plant where peanuts are also manufactured,” you have this 2004 law to thank!
These allergens can be left behind in food preparation areas and cooking surfaces and utensils, so be careful to wash these thoroughly. Food allergens cannot be airborne.
Allergic Reaction Symptoms
Many food allergies begin appearing in childhood, but some, like fish allergies, start to appear in adulthood. Although the body immediately starts internally reacting to the allergen, you may not see visible symptoms for one to two hours after eating. Symptoms include:
-Stomach discomfort or cramps
-Itching, rash or hives
-Shortness of breath, wheezing or a persistent cough
-Swelling of the tongue, airway or esophagus; trouble swallowing, breathing or talking
-Dizziness or fainting
-Pale skin or blue-tinged skin
-Anaphylaxis, in severe cases
Getting a Diagnosis
You will likely know first if you have a food allergy because you’ll get a reaction each time you eat the trigger food. Symptoms can vary each time. You can visit an allergist to make an official medical diagnosis. The doctor will want to know what you ate, how much you ate, how long it took for symptoms to appear, what symptoms you did experience and how long your symptoms lasted.
The allergist can do a blood test and a skin test to test for the specific food antibodies (immunoglobulin E or IgE) in your body. The skin test is a prick test, in which a small amount of the allergen is inserted under your skin; it takes about 20 minutes for results of the skin test to appear. A blood test measures the amount of IgE in your blood; this is a less exact test than a skin test, and it takes about a week for results to return from the lab. Many allergists will do a skin test first, then a blood test to quantify the exact amount of IgE.
A negative result rules out an allergy, but a positive result does not necessarily mean you have an allergy; instead, you might just have a sensitivity.
In this case, avoidance is the best medicine. Don’t eat the food that is causing you problems. Check food labels in the grocery store, and if you eat out, carry a food card with you that you can give to the waiter so the chef will know how to prepare your meal.
Hidden Food Allergies
Adults, in particular, can spend years feeling ill without realizing that they have a food allergy. The first clue should be an assessment of your digestive health. If you have bloating, gas, indigestion or reflex, or even irritable bowel syndrome, chances are a hidden food allergy might be the culprit. Over half of our body’s immune system is in the digestive tract, so it serves as the first line of defense.
Unfortunately, many doctors don’t’ recognize that digestive disorders, like Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis, might be caused by a food allergy. The allergens cause inflammation, which causes the digestive symptoms; over time the constant inflammation weakens the immune system. The continuous exposure to the food allergen can even cause an autoimmune problem to occur, like celiac disease, which starts with a wheat allergy.
Your ability to absorb nutrients is reduced, and the undigested food can leak into your blood circulation and cause immune reactions in the circulatory system. Heart disease is caused by inflammation, and inflammation causes high cholesterol. Where does most inflammation come from? Your diet. It’s a vicious cycle.
Arthritis and joint pain can even stem from food allergens that cause inflammation.
What To Do
Try to keep your intestines calm. Avoid irritant foods like peanuts, soy, dairy, and wheat for two weeks, and see what happens. See if your gas and bloating goes away. If you haven’t been diagnosed with a specific allergy, try to remove all the foods at once, then once your digestive system is functioning correctly, add each one back in to pinpoint any problems.
If you suspect a food allergy, try food elimination of visit your allergist for a diagnosis. Eliminating the food allergy can improve your overall health. You may find that other problems go away once you’ve removed trigger foods from your diet.
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