Many people use the term “food allergies” when they are actually talking about “food intolerances.” Bothell’s Dr. Nicole Anderson explains to her patients dealing with digestive health issues that while the two issues are similar, there are some key differences.
An allergy is a reaction to a specific substance, which prompts a strong immune response that can impact the digestive system, but can also affect other systems and organs throughout the body, including the skin and respiratory tract. These reactions result in the formation of IgE antibodies or the release of histamine. Reactions can range from mild to serious, with potentially life-threatening consequences. An intolerance is also a physiological response to certain substances and may include the production of IgG antibodies. Symptoms of food intolerance are not typically as dramatic or acutely severe as serious food allergies, but the gastrointestinal distress and prolonged inflammation can cause chronic issues that negatively impact quality of life if they are not addressed.
If the symptoms of a food allergy aren’t obvious—such as respiratory distress, including anaphylaxis, closing of the throat, or a skin reaction—there are tests available to determine if a reaction is an allergic IgE mediated response or a less obvious IgG response.
To test for food intolerances, blood tests can also be useful. This may include IgG testing or blood cell reactivity tests, because blood cells sometimes react to certain foods however, it is important to understand that not all reactions result in the development of an antibody.
A food elimination diet might be necessary if testing for food allergies or intolerance doesn’t provide all of the definitive answers. Patients may need to eat a limited diet for weeks and slowly reintroduce foods one by one, while monitoring symptoms, to determine what the body is reacting to. Elimination diets are not always easy, but in some cases, it’s the best way to determine a food that the body is reacting to.
While any food can trigger allergic reactions or inflammation, the most common culprits Dr. Anderson sees are gluten, eggs, dairy, and soy.
A healthy immune system fights off infections from bacteria, viruses, and other organisms. For some people, their immune system mistakenly treats proteins in specific foods as a similar threat, resulting in adverse reactions to food.
Food allergies can cause many different symptoms, including abdominal pain, gastrointestinal distress, hives, or skin rashes, as well as swelling that can impede or completely block airways. Food intolerance often causes constipation or diarrhea, gas, and acid reflux, as well as a host of other symptoms that can include joint pain, cognitive issues, fatigue, and skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis.
In emergency situations, an antihistamine to reduce or stop an allergic reaction, or a vasoconstrictor to counter the effects of anaphylaxis and similar reactions, may be necessary.
For many people, life with food allergies or intolerance means determining which foods trigger reactions, and removing those foods from their diet. People with severe food allergies may have a reaction to trace amounts of the food, such as peanut dust, and so must take great care in not only what they consume, but also how they interact with the environment.
For some people, food allergies do not cause severe acute reactions, but they do cause chronic inflammation and related problems. Dr. Anderson works with patients who come to her with known food allergies, as well as those whose food allergies are discovered and identified in the course of diagnosing and treating other conditions.
Dr. Anderson can help you determine if you are having an allergic reaction or intolerance reaction to food or an autoimmune response, such as with celiac disease. While often referred to as a “gluten allergy,” this Celiac disease is an autoimmune response to the tissues that absorb nutrients in the small intestine. This is most commonly triggered by the consumption of wheat, barley, and rye.
Diet is an incredibly important factor in terms of overall health. Dr. Anderson estimates that about 90 percent of the patients she sees for a wide range of conditions—not just digestion related—are caused by or heavily influenced by what the patient is eating. Addressing food allergy and intolerance can help to drastically improve or even resolve chronic pain, skin conditions, and even neurological issues. Left untreated, food allergies and intolerances can result in a lifetime of symptoms and a gradually worsening condition that can impact an increasing number of systems and processes. The body has an amazing capacity to heal, but offending substances—foods or otherwise—need to be identified and removed in order for the body to begin the healing process.