Food is at the heart of many of our lives. More than mere fuel to keep our bodies running, many of us build our social and family calendars around mealtimes. The idea of sharing food as a bonding activity is as old as humankind itself.
Unfortunately, many of us experience adverse reactions to food. Whether it's the outbreak of a skin rash, a feeling of uncomfortable bloat in the stomach, or even a wholesale rejection of what we've eaten that results in vomiting or diarrhoea, most people can relate to at least one experience where a dining experience went awry.
When this happens, our first thought is often food poisoning. When others that enjoyed the meal fail to show the same adverse reactions, thoughts turn to individual concerns. Surely, we are allergic to one of the ingredients, and our body is warning us not to attempt to consume them again!
This is certainly a possibility, but it's advisable to stop and take a moment before declaring ourselves allergic to particular foodstuffs. In reality, any discomfort experienced after eating can be part of the sliding scale. In lieu of an allergy, you may be living with a sensitivity or intolerance – three disparate concerns, with three varying solutions.
Before we go any further, let's define and differentiate between allergies, intolerances, and sensitivities.
A food allergy arises when the body's immune system sees a particular food as a threat and responds accordingly.
Let's imagine that you have an allergy to peanuts – the most commonplace example of a food allergy across the world. Upon detecting peanuts within the body, the immune system leaps into action and does all it can to purge these unwelcome invaders.
The response of the immune system is often disproportionate, resulting in physical reactions that include the following:
- Nauseous feeling, possibly leading to vomiting
- Growing lightheaded and dizzy
- Skin breaking out in hives or an itchy rash
- Struggling for breath, often due to restriction of the throat
- Running nose and sneezing
- Stomach cramps and diarrhoea
- Swelling around the lips and face
- Anaphylactic shock
Food sensitivity (known as a "non-classic allergy" in medical circles) is, on paper, less severe than a traditional allergy. We say this because food sensitivities do not potentially plunge anybody into anaphylaxis.
That does not mean that food sensitivities can be ignored, though. You may experience some of the same symptoms of an allergy when living with food sensitivity, including nausea, stomach pain, or rash on the skin.
Food sensitivities can also cause brain fog, leave you feeling exhausted, and even cause problems with the stomach lining. Bloody stools are not uncommon in people who regularly consume foods they display sensitivity towards.
Food intolerance is slightly different, in that this concern means the body cannot break down components of a foodstuff. Take lactose intolerance as an example, arguably the most common food intolerance.
If you live with lactose intolerance, your body lacks the enzymes required to process milk and other dairy products. Digestive concerns often follow, including but not limited to gas, bloating, cramps, diarrhoea and constipation. While none of these concerns are overtly dangerous, neither are they pleasant to live with.
Seeking Diagnosis of an Allergy, Intolerance or Sensitivity
If you suspect you are living with one of these issues, seek the help of a healthcare professional. With current health crises seeming never to end and you don’t want to wait for a diagnosis, why not take a fast and comprehensive Ultimate Health Test. This will tell you what, if anything, you have a reaction to.
If you experience a dangerous reaction, such as anaphylaxis or restricted breathing, head to your nearest A&E, or call the medics. If the response is comparatively mild, make a note of the following and arrange to meet with your GP.
- What did you consume before the reaction, and how much of it?
- What symptoms did you experience?
- How quickly did these symptoms manifest, and how long did they last?
Expect your GP to also ask about your general health and lifestyle and any historical family illness. Allergies and sensitivities can be hereditary. If the potential allergy, intolerance or sensitivity is not considered urgent, a doctor will likely recommend you avoid the foods that triggered the reaction for around six weeks and see if this prevents another episode. This trial-and-error approach can be frustrating, but it's a popular solution.
If your body's response to the food is deemed a potential medical emergency, you will likely be referred to a specialist clinic for a skin-prick test. This involves placing a small amount of the possible trigger food on the arm, then piercing the skin. In doing so, the potential allergen will meet your immune system once more. If the clinic has successfully identified the trigger food, your arm will experience a small, painless rash and swelling.
Living with a Food Allergy, Intolerance or Sensitivity
It's perfectly possible to continue living a full life, even if you have an allergy, sensitivity or intolerance. Of the three concerns, intolerances are the easiest to resolve. As these issues are caused by a lack of enzymes in the body, these can be replaced by supplementation.
Lactose intolerance, for example, can be managed by taking a lactase supplement before consuming dairy. There is always an element of risk to this, but you're considerably less likely to suffer stomach complaints.
Allergies and sensitivities require more care, especially severe allergies that can plunge the body into anaphylaxis. It stands to reason to check the packaging of seemingly unrelated foodstuffs to ensure they do not contain traces of nuts, lactose etc that cause your problem.
Equally, explain your allergy to kitchen staff when dining out. This way, the food preparation team can ensure that your meal is not prepared on a surface that previously held nuts. By notifying others of your allergy, people will also be able to provide first aid in the – hopefully unlikely – event of it becoming necessary.
Always listen to your body if you are concerned that you are living with a food allergy, sensitivity or intolerance. The problem may not be as severe as you initially feared, but consult a professional and take tests to find out. The more you understand your body's concerns surrounding this food, the easier it will be to manage – or better yet, avoid reactions.