Words by Kathy Iandoli
That itchy throat when you eat an apple. The rumbling stomach after you’ve had cheese. These reactions are your body clearly telling you something, and if you don’t pay attention, they can be life threatening.
KNOW THE DIFFERENCE
Before delving into how to help your body with food issues, let’s first dive into the important difference in reactions.
A food allergy causes a reaction from your immune system and can at times be life threatening. A food sensitivity or intolerance is a reaction from your digestive system. More often than not it’s not a life threatening issue, but it can cause complications down the road.
Both food allergies and food intolerances/sensitivities can yield similar symptoms of stomach discomfort and vomiting. However, with an allergic reaction, the response is often immediate and can manifest itself in different ways depending upon the extent of the reaction.
It can also happen with even the tiniest bit of food. Symptoms can vary from an itchy mouth, tongue, and throat to widespread hives. In severe cases, anaphylaxis can occur, where the throat and air supply are closed off, making it difficult, sometimes impossible to breathe. Food allergies can happen from any food, though common allergies include nuts, shellfish, tree nuts, stone fruit or drupes (peaches, plums, etc.), and even certain spices like cinnamon or red pepper.
Food sensitivities/intolerances almost always yield a digestive reaction. This can happen at the onset of the food hitting your system or after hours. The response can be stomach cramps, diarrhea, nausea, and/or vomiting. While any food can also yield these sensitivities, the most common include wheat, dairy, and soy.
A “gluten allergy” is something of a wild card in between the two, as a gluten allergy called celiac disease is an immune system response to the protein that is found in wheat called gluten. The reaction is similar to a sensitivity/intolerance, only intensified. While different medical opinions suggest that a gluten allergy doesn’t exist as much as it should be regarded as intolerance, your body is the best barometer.
So how do you determine what is what? An allergy test can rule out or determine the foods you are allergic to, and if done by way of drawing blood, it can even determine the foods you’re sensitive to. The aforementioned blood test or scratch test (where samples of the allergen are scraped on to the skin) can explain your body’s levels of intolerance or allergy to various foods.
A blood test can provide more extensive results, as a few blood samples can find the cause of multiple allergies, whereas a scratch test only has the body as the canvas. The results are applied to a scale from slight to severe, with severe being the threat of anaphylaxis. Your allergist can suggest carrying an EPI Pen and/or antihistamine in the event of an allergic reaction and also suggest which foods to avoid due to intolerance.
DONT’ IGNORE THE SIGNS
While many ignore both food allergies and food sensitivities (if the reaction doesn’t yield vomiting), these are nothing to take lightly. Food allergies can escalate with age and level of consumption, so an itch today can be anaphylaxis tomorrow. The body is temperamental.
Food sensitivities and intolerances, while often not life threatening, can aggravate other parts of your body. They can worsen (or even perhaps awaken) diverticulitis, and even provoke acid reflux, which down the road can cause a number of problems in the stomach and esophagus. Over the counter and prescription medication can quell these reactions, but keep in mind these are just bandages over a problem that originates from eating certain foods.
The best treatment is to listen to your body. If a food feels harmful to your body, or something just doesn’t feel right, then it probably is. Pay attention to hidden ingredients in food [start by reading labels], and consult with an allergist if you suspect your body is reacting negatively to certain foods. It could save your life.