These days, there is mass hysteria around the topic of gluten. It is impossible not to bump into a sign at your local grocery or health food store that promoting gluten-free seemingly as a more healthy option. It turns out many consumers are confused about the difference between allergy, sensitivity, and intolerance. I would like to clarify and shed some light on some differences in immune response to things in and around you.
If you’re sniffling, sneezing and wheezing, your throat itches, your nose is running and your eyes are watery, in all likelihood you are one of the 20 percent of North Americans who are allergic to something, and that something may be in season.
An allergy occurs when the body’s immune system overreacts to a substance that is normally harmless, such as mould, pollen, animal dander or dust mites. It’s easy to mistake allergies or hay fever for symptoms of an infection—a cold or sinusitis. But a cold usually lasts no more than ten days and often presents with thick green or yellow mucus as opposed to the clear and runny mucus of an allergy. The overall itch is often the clue that we’re suffering from an allergy.
These airborne triggers are familiar to almost everyone, whether we’re sufferers ourselves or not. But MORE complex and mysterious are our adverse reactions to the very substance that sustains us: our food. It’s been long known that the consumption of certain foods can have profound effects on our individual immune systems. But I’m not speaking here of fast food, junk food, sugar, chemicals or preservatives— certainly substances that can erode our health over a period of years. I’m speaking about food allergies and food intolerance. Even to healthy foods.
A Food intolerance is also known as non-allergic food hypersensitivity. This a distinct category of problem not to be confused with allergies. Organic dairy products may be healthy food in moderation yet more than half of the world’s population will experience upset stomachs, intestinal cramps, gas or diarrhea when they ingest milk or milk products: this is lactose intolerance, the inability to effectively digest dairy, and actually nothing to do with immune dysfunction. Lactose, the sugar in milk, is digested by the enzyme lactase. It is estimated that 75 percent of adults worldwide show a significant—and perfectly healthy—decrease in lactase activity during adulthood. Most adults of Asian, African, Middle Eastern and Native American descent are lactose intolerant. In addition, half of Hispanics and about 20 percent of Caucasians do not produce sufficient lactase as adults. If a person is one of this 75 percent and drinks milk, she may to varying degrees experience bloating, upset stomach, loose bowels and mild to moderate forms of diarrhea.
A simple test for lactose intolerance is to drink at least two eight-ounce glasses of milk on an empty stomach and note any gastrointestinal symptoms that develop in the next four hours. The test should then be repeated using several ounces of cheese (which does not contain much lactose). If symptoms result from milk but not cheese, then you probably have lactose intolerance. If symptoms occur with both milk and cheese, you may be allergic to dairy products, a quite different condition. It’s rare that lactose intolerance is so severe that eating cheese causes symptoms.
Food allergies are something quite different. Sometimes called food sensitivities when they are relatively mild, food allergies are a notorious cause of negative effects on the body and are based on the relationship between a food and the individual immune system. Technically speaking, a food allergy is associated with the generation of immunoglobin E (IgE) antibodies against that particular food. The symptoms may be hives, swelling or full-blown anaphylaxis and breathing distress. If you have a food allergy, you’re probably already carrying around an Epi-pen and wearing a MedicAlert bracelet.
If you experience digestive distress soon after eating but have never discerned the cause, then testing is the key to identifying whether you have a food intolerance or a food allergy. A food allergy is effectively evaluated by a blood test that looks at the immunoglobulins present in the body against specific foods. In fact almost everyone has some allergic reaction to some food, usually the result of repeated consumption of the same, general overconsumption or inherited susceptibility. Most people, however, do not experience intense symptoms and get by without serious problems.
An example of overconsumption in our society is the omnipresent wheat grain. A morning breakfast cereal with toast, a sandwich for lunch, crackers as a snack, pasta for dinner with cakes and cookies for dessert is not at all an uncommon diet routine in our part of the world. Given that many people have a genetic predisposition to wheat intolerance, developing a real intolerance to wheat gluten is hardly surprising. Even a mild to moderate gluten sensitivity can produce symptoms of gas, bloating, polishing of the intestine and malabsorption. Chronic inflammation to the lining of the intestine from an overactive immune system (which attacks the intestinal mucous membrane) causes the intestine to wear down (“polish”) and eventually become unable to absorb nutrients. This is known as celiac disease, a genetically inherited allergy to the gluten component of wheat that affects the digestive system and especially the small intestine, and often produces more severe symptoms. Perhaps one in 100 people have full-blown celiac disease, and about 97 percent of those with the disease don’t know it. If you wonder whether you or a loved one has celiac, your health care provider can do blood work to look at readings of anti-tissue transglutaminase antibodies, total immunoglobulins (in particular IgA) and screenings for anti-gliadin antibodies and anti-endomysial antibodies. You also may be referred to a gastroenterologist for a biopsy. Alternatively, you can jump the line at the doctors office and have a comprehensive battery of blood work done for sensitivities through My Health Report. These results can be shared with your family doctor for interpretation. And keep in mind that, even if you don’t have celiac disease, you may still have a mild intolerance or sensitivity to gluten and a whole host of other foods.
To be clear… A skin allergy test determines fixed or immediate responses to food allergies. A simple test an allergist can do involves scratching your arm or back with suspected allergens and then analyzing the welts left behind for their intensity.
Food sensitivity testing (very different than intolerance or allergy), is done when certain symptoms develop, or preexisting conditions become worse. Examples of such symptoms include acne, anxiety, arthritis, asthma, attention deficit disorder, autism, chronic diarrhea, chronic fatigue, constipation, depression, diabetes, high blood pressure, hyperactivity disorder, irritable bowel syndrome, muscle pain, obesity, panic attacks, sinusitis and weight imbalance.
Ya! That’s a LONG list. And that’s because foods can contribute to a whole host of problems when your immune system doesn’t agree with them.
Again, we’re not talking about the difference between healthy foods and unhealthy foods when we’re talking about these immune responses. An IgG reaction can be triggered by such wholesome foods as organic chicken, broccoli, or spinach. True, the reactions that sensitivities provoke are not as severe as allergies, but they can nonetheless damage your health through inflammation and the sort of symptoms I’ve just mentioned.
Testing your blood is the first step in the process to help identify the foods which may be causing symptoms. Professional laboratories use the microarray-based test that can detect IgG antibodies to more than two hundred different foods. Only a blood test can reveal hidden food sensitivity in these circumstances. If someone asks you to hold a metal rod while they figure out your sensitivities, I’d have serious doubts about the accuracy of their results and the quality of their recommendations. A well-respected and scientifically proven testing protocol called the enzyme-linked immunosorbant assay provides a useful measurement of the concentration of the antigen (the food in question) and the antibody (your immune response), thereby exposing the specific food intolerance. That is the type of testing done at My Health Report. These factors are determined by an immune reaction governed by a molecular component of the immune system called immunoglobulin gamma (IgG). Based on test results, you can then work with your healthcare professional, to reduce, restrict, or rotate these intolerances in your diet. The old saying “one man’s meat is another man’s poison” really is true. Keep in mind that no test is 100 percent accurate, and food allergy testing is no exception. Although highly reproducible, you can expect a few false positives and negatives (e.g., cashews may show up as sensitive, but on a subsequent test, they don’t. Pepper spice may not show up as positive, but a subsequent test might suggest a low-grade response).
In many cases, eliminating these sensitivity triggers from your diet may be enough to relax an overexcited immune system and you may find yourself symptom free. I’ve personally witnessed hundreds of cases of eczema, psoriasis, migraine headaches, fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome and panic attacks that improve significantly once food intolerances were tested for, discovered and removed.
If testing indicates that you suffer from environmental allergies, you can find relief through a number of natural health products.
First, consider increasing your nutritional intake of omega-3 fatty acids and brightly coloured fruits and vegetables that contain flavonoids. That is…if you know you don’t have an allergy or sensitivity to any of them. To help you further, you might want to try spirulina, a type of blue-green algae available as a supplement that may act to decrease the symptoms of allergies.
The perennial shrub butterbur may prevent symptoms from allergies. In fact, comparisons of butterbur to prescription drugs have reported similar efficacy. I recommend a herbal extract standardized to contain 8 mg of petasin (a butterbur extract) per tablet taken two or three times a day for two weeks. Caution: the raw, unprocessed plant is potentially toxic and you should avoid butterbur if you are allergic or hypersensitive to plants from the Asteraceae or Compositae family such as ragweed, marigolds, daisies and chrysanthemums.
If you’ve got seasonal allergies, the Similasan line of allergy support powered by all natural ingredients can manage symptoms naturally and without side effects or rebound effects. And did you know that effective allergy prevention should include showering your nose? Nasal irrigation, using a neti pot, effectively treats allergies and chronic sinusitis. Essentially, you prepare a warm, salt-water solution in a special pot known as a “neti pot” and pour it through your nose to relieve your sinuses and rinse away the nagging allergens, dust and bacteria. And don’t forget to shower the rest of you—especially your hair and especially before bedtime—to wash out the allergens that may be stuck to your skin. Wash clothes in hot water—this destroys allergens—and consider the use of a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) purifier to clean the circulating air. You might also consider a dehumidifier to reduce dust mites and fungi.
And if you suffer from chronic sinus congestion, you can breathe freely again by opening the blocked passageways using a Breathe Right Nasal Strip which is drug free and works instantly to open the airwaves. But first, ensure your environment as free as possible from irritants and allergens such as dust, mould, smoke, chemical fumes and animal dander that can trigger sinus congestion. On top of this, you can try “steam cleaning” your sinuses with aromatic oils such as eucalyptus or products containing menthol: this should reduce nasal stuffiness.
Bromelain, a digestive enzyme that is extracted from the stem and the fruit of the pineapple plant, has been studied for its effects on sinusitis, and a 2007 German study found that a herbal mixture of nasturtium and horseradish may be comparable to antibiotics for the treatment of acute sinusitis.
Lastly, good scientific evidence suggests that the herb butterbur is effective for the prevention of allergic rhinitis in susceptible individuals and may also prevent chronic bacterial sinusitis that can be a secondary consequence of allergies.
Whether it is a sensitivity, allergy, or intolerance, identification and proper testing is key. Symptoms can be further supported by avoidance or elimination of the offending agent along with certain natural health products that work to balance an overactive immune system.