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Allergic or intolerant ?
TRUE FOOD ALLERGIES are a reaction involving the immune system where the body sees a food as harmful so makes specific antibodies to ‘fight off’ the allergens found in these foods. This results in the release of histamine and other natural chemicals in the body, which then produce an acute (or immediate) allergic reaction. At its worst, loss of consciousness can occur and is known as anaphylactic shock. The most severe cases can be life threatening but fortunately, true food allergies are quite rare.
The foods that most commonly cause allergic reactions are peanuts, tree nuts (such as almonds and brazils), eggs, milk, fish, shellfish and sesame. If you suspect you have a true allergy, your GP can send you to an Immunologist for testing and an accurate diagnosis. This is important as severe reactions require you to carry emergency medication at all times in case you come in contact with your allergen, while less severe allergies are settled with antihistamines you can buy at the pharmacy.
FOOD INTOLERANCES are harder to define as they involve a different part of the immune system and are harder to link directly to symptoms of ill health or discomfort. Although not life threatening in the immediate sense, they can make you feel very unwell. Reactions are often slow to present and, over many years, may lead to chronic inflammation, which is linked to a number of diseases. Symptoms may include gut bloating and irritable bowel or skin problems like eczema. These can last for many hours or days.
An intolerance can be caused by poor nutrition, refined foods or foods which damage our gut lining; this results in poor digestion and proteins leaking into our body before being broken down. Some people lack the enzymes needed to break certain foods while others react to chemicals that are produced naturally in foods such as caffeine, salicylates and histamines. An elimination diet (which can be done over a month or two) is the gold standard for diagnosing food intolerances. This can be undertaken with the help of a nutritionally confident and experienced practitioner.
If you suspect that you or a member of your family have a true allergy, ensure you get it properly diagnosed and plenty of advice on how to manage any reactions.
Currently, there is a tendency for people to say they are allergic to this, that or the other, yet very often they are actually intolerant to that substance. The following explanations should help clear up some of the confusion...