I had so much information to post about allergies – and didn’t want to leave out anything important – that I decided to make it a two part post!
This first post will cover: a) why I believe this is such an important topic, b) describe what happens to the body during an allergic reaction, c) explain the difference between “allergy,” “intolerance” and “sensitivity,” and d) common symptoms of allergies and intolerances.
In next week’s second part we’ll talk about: a) how to determine if you have an allergy or intolerance, b) the most common allergen foods, c) the “elimination diet” in detail, and d) the long-term effects on the body if intolerances are ignored.
April seems the perfect time to discuss allergies. Spring is here and with it comes the usual onslaught for allergy sufferers. But while many people suffer from environmental allergies (grass, pollen, etc.), more and more individuals are experiencing some form of reaction to the food they eat.
This can be a complicated subject because there are differences between “allergic reactions,” “intolerances” and “sensitivities.” In order to understand these differences we need to explore the various components that make up food – protein, fat and carbohydrates – and we need to understand how a person’s immune system responds in each circumstance.
First, let me explain why I feel this is an important topic to explore, especially if you’ve experienced grief, a traumatic event, anxiety or depression.
When you experience a profound loss or life-changing event your body is put under an enormous amount of stress. (See my post “What Happens to the Body During Stress,” to learn more about the impact stress has on your body.)
Basically, your body ends up working extra hard to compensate for the physical and mental strain that you’re going through, which means vitamins and minerals may not be utilized as efficiently as they did when you weren’t under stress. Your immune system then becomes compromised and you may not even be able to digest food in the same manner you did before you faced grief.
If in addition, you’re suffering from a chronic illness or other immune disorder, again, your immune system will not functioning as it did before you got sick.
The first spring after Larry died (2011) I suffered from multiple sinus infections, which led to many rounds of antibiotics. Eventually I had to take allergy medication daily to prevent more infections – all of which further compromised my immune system.
My immune system took another hit in 2012 when I contracted valley fever. The residual effects of valley fever left me facing chronic inflammation. Chronic inflammation affects your body at the cellular level and if ignored can lead to serious illnesses. (Reports of chronic inflammation are on the rise and can be serious, which warrants a separate post at a later date, so stay tuned!)
Whether it’s the after effects of valley fever or the chronic inflammation – in fact, I don’t think anyone can tell me for certain – the thing is I’ve become very sensitive to a variety of foods that never used to bother me before. However, through my diet I’ve been able to keep my inflammation under control. (Just ask any of my kids what happens when I eat wheat, dairy or meat… my hands, feet and stomach swell like balloons!)
Another reason I want to explore allergies is that many children with special needs also have compromised immune systems and they, too, suffer from a variety of food intolerances. Five years ago a blood test revealed that my son, Charlie, was intolerant to wheat and dairy.
So what does the immune system have to do with food allergies, intolerances and sensitivities?
An allergy is a reaction by your immune system to a protein that it perceives as a threat. That protein can be found in food, pollen, dust mites, etc.
Many people associate proteins with animal products such as meat, dairy or eggs, when in fact a majority of all foods (and plants) contain proteins. It’s this protein component that causes a reaction with our immune system. We’ve all heard about gluten intolerance: well, gluten is the “offending” protein found in wheat, oats, rye and some other grains.
As I previously mentioned there’s a difference between “allergies,” “intolerances” and “sensitivities.” Each is measured when the body develops antibodies to fight the offending protein. These antibodies are also known as “immunoglobin” and in medical terms are called “Ig.” In an immediate allergic response, such as anaphylaxis, an “E” will follow the Ig response, reflected as IgE. If it’s a delayed response, as is the case with intolerances and sensitivities, a “G” will follow the Ig response, reflected as IgG.
Remember: Whether you have an allergy or intolerance, your body is still building up antibodies! The former is immediately detrimental to your health, the latter can be just as detrimental, but takes longer to develop.
While an immediate reaction can alert you to an allergy, it’s harder to determine if you have an intolerance or sensitivity because the reaction is delayed or minimal.
Below are some of the symptoms of an allergic reaction:
* Swelling of the airway to the lungs
* Immediate outbreak of hives
* Nausea/vomiting/stomach pain
Below are some of symptoms a person may experience if he has an intolerance or sensitivity to foods:
* Fatigue after eating
* Diarrhea/constipation (IBS)
* Skin rashes, eczema
* Joint pain
* Brain fog
* Difficulty breathing
In Charlie’s case he had severe constipation, stomach pains and eczema. When he was a toddler he used to wake up shortly before midnight, run out of his room screaming at the top of his lungs and sit on the floor holding his stomach. Larry was usually still awake and would run over and scoop him up to try to console him. Larry told me that the only thing that seemed to comfort Charlie was rubbing his stomach.
Children with Down syndrome have a higher incidence of celiac disease than the general public. Knowing this – and based on his symptoms – I had Charlie tested for celiac, but the test came back negative. His pediatrician at the time explained that even though he didn’t have celiac he still might be experiencing intolerance to wheat.
So I had more tests done. My naturopath doctor ran a complete panel of food intolerances/sensitivities: Charlie’s dairy intolerance was off the chart and his wheat intolerance was very high, but not off the chart, which explained why the celiac test came back negative.
Since Henry and George had several of the aforementioned symptoms – headaches, constipation, eczema and difficulty breathing (asthma) – I had them tested as well. Their report indicated there were no measured intolerances. So at the time I thought, “Great, I only have to worry about changing Charlie’s diet!”
Changing the diet for one person in a household is very difficult. At times I felt really badly for Charlie not being able to eat his favorite goldfish crackers or sourdough bread and I’d give in to that cute little face when he said, “Please mommy!”
And then Larry got sick. Frankly, I had more on my plate with Larry’s illness than to worry about the food we ate. Then when he died I was more concerned about making sure my kids ate something rather than be concerned with the foods they were eating. I was doing the best I could, as I’m sure you are, too.
But when I got sick it felt as though my body betrayed me. My joints and back were in severe pain from the inflammation and the exhaustion would hit periodically throughout the day, forcing me to lie down and rest.
After months went by I started to feel a little better, but nowhere near how I felt before I contracted valley fever. Valley fever is a fungus that attacks your body and, there are no medications that will truly make it go away: antifungals help, but only to reduce the symptoms. As with a virus, you have to rely on your immune system to fight the fungus, and frankly mine was not very strong after all the grief I had experienced.
But I wasn’t about to give up and live my life feeling “mediocre.” I wanted to do whatever was within my power to be as healthy as I could be.
So the “type A” analytical researcher in me spent hours online, researching possible causes and remedies for inflammation.
One report after another stated the same facts as those found in insiderhealth.com:
“When your body is in a chronic state of inflammation, it can have serious effects on your cellular health, and has been linked to degenerative diseases including cancer, heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and many others.”
My heart kept sinking after each article I read. My children had already lost one parent; they didn’t need to lose another. I had to get my inflammation under control – and fast!
That was two years ago. Who knew my quest to improve my health would lead me in such an amazing direction? In fact, it’s made a huge impact not only on me, but also on the health of all three of my boys.
Changing my diet and improving how I feel and live my life has given me better insight into how Charlie must have felt when he would wake up screaming in pain.
Instead of feeling bad that he couldn’t have his goldfish and sourdough bread, I now feel worse that I kept feeding them to him!
I’m a believer that things happen for a reason and I can’t help but feel that getting valley fever has set me on a path to help Charlie and others who face food intolerances. Until you walk in someone else’s shoes, you have no idea what he is experiencing.
Next week I’ll explore testing methods, common allergens and what you can do to help yourself feel as good as possible.
“It is health that is real wealth and not pieces of gold and silver.” – Mahatma Gandhi.