Food allergies and sensitivities are hot topics these days, with gluten grabbing most of the attention. Let’s clarify what these terms mean, how they can affect your health, and, most importantly, what to do about it.
Getting the terminology right.
Let’s start with an allergy as it pops into our minds. When you’re allergic to something, whether it’s itchy watery eyes, immediate rashes, or your throat feels funny and closes up (eek!), this is an immediate reaction caused by the antibody immunoglobulin E (or IgE antibody). When you get the skin scratch test done as you see here, this is what they’re looking for.
A food allergy can present with symptoms hours to days after you come in contact or ingest the problematic food and can vary immensely in severity, which makes them hard to pin down. Symptoms range from digestive upset and IBS-like symptoms, to headaches, rashes, weight gain, asthma, and chronic sinusitis… to name just a few. The antibodies responsible are different from those above, and are called immunoglobulin G (or IgG antibody).
A sensitivity is lower down on the severity scale and can bug your immune system just enough that it causes some inflammation and tips things in a symptom-producing, not-so-fun direction. The inflammation that occurs in the gut (from a sensitivity or allergy) can damage the intestinal lining and let in other immune complexes through the loosened cellular junctions. If you’ve heard the term “leaky gut”, this is how that comes to be.
Note: Celiac is a whole other ballgame. This is a specific immune reaction to gluten that flattens out the little fingers in your small intestine that are used to absorb nutrients, leaving a drastically decreased surface area for absorption and hence, a whole lot of problems. You need a specific test for this, the most definitive being intestinal biopsy.
How do I find out what’s going on?
Food sensitivity blood testing will test for IgG antibodies, though some can run combination tests of IgG and IgE. Accuracy of these results are still controversial and it’s best to have a conversation with your Naturopathic Doctor about if this approach is right for you. It involves a few drops of blood from a finger-prick, but is quite pricey.
Elimination diet is the other method which is more work on the patient’s behalf for the first couple of days. This involves removing offending foods and reintroducing them to see if symptoms return. Just so you know, you’ll have to do this anyway following the blood test for whatever comes up positive.
And then what do I do about it?
I usually recommend starting with cutting out the big 5 offenders in the diet for 3 weeks: gluten, dairy, eggs, soy, and corn. If the problem seems to have a hormonally-influenced picture, meat comes out as well or is switched to strictly organic. What I often see here is improvement of symptoms on some level. And isn’t that the most important?
We then tweak which foods seem to be causing the problem by removing and reintroducing specific suspicious foods based on history and symptoms. The key is to wait about a week before changing anything that you’ve reintroduced and to do it one at a time (i.e. no pizza!) because, as you now know, we’re looking for delayed reactions.
If there’s significant reactions or if inflammation may have caused some damage, we need to discuss a bit heftier of a protocol in terms of gut healing and inflammation control.
In addition to feeling much better, most people find they can tolerate small doses of the offending foods once everything’s calmed down. And that means that most people, including me, don’t have to live without cheese.