What Are Food Allergies?
Food allergies are often considered the most common kind of allergy in children. They affect about 4-6% of all children the world over, and can vary from allergies to nuts and milk protein to allergies caused by shellfish and even wheat and soy products.
An allergy is the body’s misguided attempt at trying to fight a foreign body. As we know, our immune system helps protect us from harmful pathogens that make us sick. In some cases, the system is unable to differentiate between a harmful trigger and a perfectly harmless one, leading to an allergic reaction. You can read more about Allergies here.
Warning box: Food allergies are often considered life-threatening due to the symptoms they present. If you suspect that someone is having an allergic reaction, take them to a hospital immediately or administer an EpiPen if they have been prescribed one.
Types Of Food Allergies
Food allergies are caused by certain proteins in food that each individual may be allergic to. Most food allergies manifest in early childhood, but they can also appear in adults. Based on the food products causing the problem, food allergies can be grouped into:
- Egg Allergy, caused due to proteins both in the whites and the yolk
- Milk allergy, which is different from lactose intolerance in that it causes systemic symptoms apart from diarrhea
- Nut allergy, most commonly to peanuts but also to other tree nuts
- Fish and shellfish allergy, that often fade over time
- Wheat allergy, or allergy to gluten in some grains
- Soy allergy, which is a common reaction to proteins in soy products
Whatever the type of food allergy you may have, it is imperative that you avoid the trigger. This is because most food allergies can become life-threatening in a matter of minutes. We will discuss the precautions to take in a later section in the article.
As with all allergies, the specific cause of food allergies is not known. It has, however, been observed that people with allergies have a higher amount of IgE antibodies in their bloodstream when compared to individuals who do not get allergic reactions.
Some of the prescribed causes of allergies include:
- Heredity, in that a child inherits a specific allergy from its parents and close relatives
- The Hygiene Hypothesis, which states that allergies are caused due to not enough exposure to environmental triggers at a young age, which hampers the immune system’s ability to mature fully
- The Gut Microbiome Imbalance, a condition in which the gut flora are not a healthy colony, leading to reduced tolerance to triggers. This explanation is gaining more momentum as more and more studies begin to identify the link between the gut and the immune system.
There are several symptoms of a food allergy, and not all of them may manifest at the same time. When you suspect a food allergic reaction, it is best to see a doctor instead of waiting for more symptoms to show up. Some symptoms to look out for are:
- Nausea, vomiting, cramping and diarrhea
- Shortness of breath, tightness in the throat
- Hoarse voice
- Blurring vision
- A swollen tongue that prevents speech from flowing smoothly
- A sensation of choking on something
- Anaphylaxis or shock
Do not wait to see if these reactions will subside. Rush a doctor immediately whatever the time of day it may be. In children who cannot yet talk and are being introduced to new foods, keep a very close eye on how they feel after each new food. Follow your doctor’s advice on introducing foods that can potentially cause an allergic reaction.
(Add a box here with graphics to link to the Allergies main article. Text in the box: Not sure if it is a food allergy? See more symptoms and causes here.)
Food allergy testing is the only conclusive way to identify if an allergy is indeed present. Some people recommend maintaining a food diary, but such a process is fraught with problems and may not always give out accurate results.
However, if your doctor has asked you to maintain a food diary in tandem with other diagnostic options, be as diligent about it as possible.
Not all food allergies cause an immediate rash and a reaction. This is why an allergist will ask you questions on when you ate a potential trigger, after how many hours you started to notice the symptoms, whether this has happened before and any treatments you have tried in the past. (https://acaai.org/allergies/types/food-allergies/testing)
Some common tests include:
- The Skin-Prick Test: In this test, usually the back of the patient’s body is pricked with several potential allergens and the reaction is observed over time. Close clinical supervision is highly recommended.
- Blood Test: The most common test is a single-prick option where blood is drawn and sent for testing. Blood tests are recommended for people that have a skin rash that prevents skin prick results from being read accurately. Results take a few days to arrive.
- Elimination Diet: If you’ve been diligent with your food diary, your doctor may ask you to systematically eliminate foods from your diet and report the results.
- Oral Food Challenge: This must always be performed under close medical supervision. The professional feeds you increasing quantities of a suspect food and notes the reaction. This test is used when all other tests prove inconclusive.
Warning Box: The Oral Food Challenge or OFC is a last-resort test and can turn fatal if done carelessly. Please do not try this at home, as a medical professional knows exactly what doses of food to administer.
Treatment (Medication) - Allopathy, Homeopathy, Ayurveda
- As is the case with all allergies, there is no conventional treatment for food allergies. In allopathy, the approach is to avoid the food triggers, use an Epinephrine shot (EpiPen) in case of an adverse reaction and use steroid medication for chronic, less severe food allergy symptoms.
Some studies are underway that study the effect of introducing denatured proteins to patients with food allergies to desensitize the body to its presence. However, clinical trials are still pending.
- Herbal and ayurvedic remedies are showing some promise. In studies, compounds containing eleven unrevealed Chinese herbs helped prevent peanut allergy, both at the development stage and also post developing a full-blown allergy.
In Ayurveda, the concept of doshas states that each human system needs certain foods, and would do well to avoid other foods. Extending this principle one step further, some doctors recommend identifying your dosha and consuming food appropriate to balance it so as to prevent allergies.
- Homeopathy has not shown any documented promise in treating food allergies specifically, but can be used to treat allergies in general as well as to manage symptoms such as rashes and clogged sinuses.
The primary aim of a nutrition plan in food allergies is to avoid the trigger that causes an allergic reaction.
However, food can be used to bring about positive change in the body, and irrespective of whether your food allergies disappear or not, a healthy diet that builds up the immune system can help you lead a better quality of life.
Until recently, the digestive system was simply seen as an organ that processes food and sends nutrients into the body. But, the digestive system is also affected by the foods it does digest- in other words, we are what we eat.
The wrong foods eaten over a period of time can cause imbalances in how we digest food, and disturb the balance of the gut flora. And as we know, gut flora play an important role in our immunity.
- The elimination diet is not only for identifying what foods you are allergic to, but also to identify other food triggers that set off milder reactions in your body. However, if you choose to eliminate some foods from your diet, consider the potential nutrient loss as well.
- Consuming probiotic and prebiotic foods helps rebuild a healthy balance of gut flora, contributing to the immune system’s wellbeing.
- Be sure to investigate allergies to Candida, a form of aggressive yeast that can cause a host of health issues, allergies included. If you have a Candida allergy, consult a doctor to help cure it.
When you receive a food allergy diagnosis, some changes in how you live and eat are in order. Here are some general recommendations:
- Always read product labels and look out for triggers
- Always carry an EpiPen- kids too must be educated about the benefits of doing so
- Dine out at places you trust
- Carry your medical information with you in a wallet or pouch
However, while these precautionary measures are necessary, the aim is to help you lead a better life. With this in mind,
- work closely with a nutritionist to reset your gut health
- consume foods that boost your immunity
- follow alternative medical practices but keep everyone informed of your choice
- Consider seeking help in the areas of mindfulness and balance, if you think it might benefit you
How to Prevent Food Allergies
Unfortunately, there is no conclusive proof that food allergies can indeed be prevented. Most studies in this direction are lab tests and cannot be implemented at face value.
- If food allergies run in the family, talk to a doctor about their prevention, especially in children.
- Make the most of the foods you can eat to build a healthy body
- Try immunotherapy and challenge diets to help slowly build tolerance to different foods.
Remember, allergies may seem like the end of the world, but they are not. With an action plan for when they are triggered, and healthy living options for when they aren’t, you can lead a happy life.