Tag Archives: Sensitivity

Living with Food Allergies and Sensitivities

As I spoke about in last week’s article Figuring out Food Allergies and Sensitivities, there are a few types of sensitivities to foods.  These can manifest in a variety of ways, including joint pain, eczema, asthma, sinus and digestive problems.  Although there are many factors that may contribute to these types of issues, foods can and often do play a role.  So once you have figured out the foods to which you are sensitive, what can you do about them?  In essence, we have two options: foods to which you will always have a sensitivity (true allergens) and food sensitivities that can be modified and improved over time.

True Allergens
For some food allergies, the only solution is avoidance. Often allergies to things like shellfish, peanuts or tree nuts tend to be persistent throughout life.  The reaction to these allergens tends to be fast, and can be severe, resulting in inflammation in the digestive tract, skin or lungs.  This can manifest as stomachaches, vomiting, rash or even anaphylaxis. In the case of celiac disease, the reaction isn’t always so immediate or severe but the need for complete lifelong avoidance is the same.

If this is the case for you, the good news is that there are so many healthy and delicious alternatives.  Compared to 10 years ago, there are so many readily available foods that are well marked and free of common allergens.  Frequenting the natural foods aisle of the grocery store or shopping at a “health food” store can often make this process a bit easier.  This is because there are often fewer “hidden” ingredients such as egg albumin, corn syrup, whey protein, or wheat starch in some of the more natural brands.  All food products are now required by law to state common allergens contained in them, which also can make things easier.  Check back in weeks to come for more specific advice on avoiding common allergens such as gluten and dairy.

Food Sensitivities
For some food reactions, it is possible to eliminate or at least decrease your sensitivity.  I often see people with sensitivities to proteins in wheat, dairy, soy, egg, and many less common allergens that can improve over time.  Especially in adults, new allergies may appear or old ones may become more severe after significant illness, stress, or hormonal changes such as pregnancy or menopause.  Improvement will often be seen using a few basic approaches to decreasing reactivity to foods:

Avoid reactive foods

The first step to healing is to completely remove any allergens or irritants (I usually start with 4-6 weeks).  Often, just doing this will decrease or eliminate reactivity.  When we give the body a break from the source of irritation, swelling and antibodies will decrease.  This will allow the areas of chronic irritation to heal and become less prone to inflammation when they are re-exposed to the allergen.

Heal the digestive tract

Did you know that approximately 80% of the immune cells in your body reside in the large intestine?  The digestive system is our body’s first direct contact with much of the outside world, so it makes sense that much of our defense against bacteria, viruses and other invaders including allergens is here.  If there is any chronic irritation or dysbiosis in the digestive tract, our ability to properly break down and absorb foods will be compromised.  This can lead to further reactivity once food particles enter the bloodstream.  If we can correct any imbalance in the flora (either infectious or from a lack of proper bacteria), eliminate swelling, and heal the cells that line the digestive tract this can decrease our overall sensitivity to foods.  Beyond just avoiding offending foods, we can also add appropriate probiotics and herbs to heal the digestive cells which can further improve your results.  If appropriate, we can also use antiiflammatory herbs and colostrum to decrease the overall tendency towards inflammation.

Improve the function of the liver
The liver is the body’s processing plant.  It looks at everything that comes into the bloodstream, decides whether the body needs it or not, and packages it appropriately to be used by the cells or excreted as waste.  If it is functioning relatively slowly, things that should become wastes or broken down further may continue circulating in the bloodstream, which can cause increased inflammation.  When we boost liver function by eating foods such as beets, leafy greens, and artichokes, we can process wastes more quickly and decrease the probability of inappropriately reacting to particles in the bloodstream.

Figuring Out Food Allergies and Sensitivities

In my 12 years of seeing patients, it seems that the frequency of food intolerances has increased exponentially in all age categories.   I think this is perhaps due to a combination of increased sensitivity to foods as well as greater awareness of our bodies and the potential role food sensitivities can play in various ailments.  During the springtime, we focus on helping the body eliminate wastes more effectively by optimizing the function of our liver and large intestine.  One of the most powerful ways we can do this is to avoid any foods  to which we are sensitive.  This will decrease inflammation in the digestive tract and throughout the body and improve our ability to properly utilize the nutrients in our food.

What is the difference between an allergy and a sensitivity?
I like to make this distinction because there are clear differences between different types of food reactions.  This is because our immune system makes different types of antibodies. Antibodies are “flags” made by our immune cells; when these cells recognize a foreign protein in the body (from a bacteria, a virus, or an allergen like pollen or a food), antibodies are released which tells the body to make inflammation.

We have a few different types of antibodies that cause us to have different types of allergic reactions:  IgE antibodies are immediate sensitivity antibodies.  In people who have reactions to things like shellfish or peanuts, they react almost immediately and usually in a severe way such as vomiting, swelling, or airway restriction. IgE sensitivities are more of what we would call a true “allergy”.  They tend to be more severe and immediate, and often a person with this type of allergy can not tolerate any amount of the offending food.  They can be quite persistent throughout life, though kids can grow out of some severe types of food allergies.

IgG antibodies are delayed sensitivity.  These produce delayed reactions that may be difficult to find the cause of such as joint pain, asthma, eczema or a chronic stuffy nose.  These are more often what I would call a “sensitivity”.  This is because they tend to be less severe, and can vary in severity throughout life. Also, people can often tolerate some amount of these foods before they have a reaction.  The severity can also usually be reduced by using natural anti-inflammatories, periodic avoidance, and healing the lining of the digestive tract.

IgA antibodies are made in the digestive tract and are our first defense against whatever comes into our bodies.  These are important because diagnosing celiac disease can be partially based upon finding an IgA type antibody called anti-endomysial antibody.  Celiac disease is a genetic disease and will not change throughout life; someone with celiac will have to avoid all gluten throughout their lifetime to avoid damage to the small intestine.

How do I know if my children or I have a food allergy?
As I mentioned above, the symptoms of food allergies and intolerances can be widely variable.  Generally, it tends to be much easier to diagnose an immediate sensitivity because a child will have a severe reaction to a specific food that is easy to replicate.  Other types of sensitivites can be more difficult to figure out, though.The gold standard for testing for food sensitivities is an elimination diet; we take out all the possible foods for 3 weeks, see if there is improvement, and then add foods back 1 at a time for 72 hours to see if there is a reaction.  This is effective but cumbersome and time consuming.

My favorite type of lab testing for this information is a blood test for IgG antibodies to specific foods.  This is not perfect but gives us a very good place to start and frequently is very beneficial.  I often see infants who show reactivity to something in their mother’s milk, which manifests most commonly as colic, digestive trouble or eczema.  Often in this case we will test the mother because the antibodies she makes to those foods could be coming through the breast milk and causing a reaction in the child.

Check back next week for more on “I have food sensitivities, what do I do now?”