Is food making you ill?
The number of people becoming ill as a result of the food they eat seems to be increasing. Why is this? Some of the causes suggested are:
- allergens - these are found in processed foods containing preservatives and additives, which are increasingly a part of the Western diet
- increased use of pesticides in food production
- pollutants in the environment
- the “hygiene hypothesis,” which holds that, in a Western culture obsessed with hygiene and antibacterial products, children are not exposed to the microbes and allergens that train their developing immune systems to react healthily
- excess adrenaline in our systems caused by the faster pace of life and the constant stimulation our brains suffer in developed society
- increased openness about ailments and an increased willingness to go to the doctor
- an increased expectation of good health, meaning we are no longer tolerant of any ailments
Whatever the cause, the increase in allergies has meant that the need for a healthier diet is becoming as recognized as the need to act to prevent global warming. It has finally hit the school curriculum and food production companies are finally advertising foods that are free from unnecessary additives.
Is it a food allergy or a food intolerance?
It's generally believed that any reaction to food is an allergy, but the timing of the reaction distinguishes whether your condition is a true allergy or a food intolerance.
A true allergy produces immediate and acute symptoms and in extreme cases can lead to anaphylactic shock and potential death. Symptoms include:
- swelling of lips
- diarrhoea, nausea, vomiting and bloating
- shortness of breath
- runny nose
- sore, red, itchy eyes
As these symptoms can be caused by problems other than food allergy, you should visit your GP for advice if you think you could be suffering from an allergy.
Food intolerances are much less severe and reactions may take 2-4 days to appear. They can be triggered off by stress, the menstrual cycle, temperature changes, smoking and even exercise. Symptoms include:
- nausea, bloating, abdominal pain and diarrhoea
- flushing of the skin
- headache, migraine
- feeling faint
- respiratory problems such as asthma and rhinitis
- joint pains, arthritis
Food allergy testing
Due to the immediate and potentially life-threatening consequences of food allergies, especially to shellfish and peanuts, food allergy testing can only be undertaken safely in hospital with a qualified doctor present.
The types of tests available are:
- skin prick tests
- blood tests
- hair testing
- brief elimination diet and re-introduction of suspect foods
Skin prick tests
A small amount of the suspect food is placed on the forearm or back, next to a very small, fine scratch. If redness and swelling develop around the scratch, the test is positive for that food.
This test isn't always reliable, as some foods can test positive in this test even when there is no allergy to that food, so it's usually used in combination with other tests.
Because of the risk of having a severe allergic reaction these tests are always carried out in hospital.
The RAST (radioallergeosorbent) test measures levels of food-specific antibodies in your blood. If you have a severe food allergy and are at risk of anaphylaxis or if you have severe eczema or dermatitis and can't have a skin test, the RAST would be the preferred option. However, the RAST can also give false positive and false negative results (A false negative identifies antibodies that aren't circulated in the blood).
Hair sample tests
Hair testing is often offered by complimentary practitioners. The tests reveal any lack of minerals, though results can vary due to shampoos and hair dyes.
Doctors do not recommend these tests because there is no proof that they accurately display an allergy or sensitivity to foods.
This is often offered by alternative health clinics for food intolerances. You are linked into the machine’s measurement circuit by a stumpy metal rod held in one hand, while another thick metal pen-like bar is pressed against an acupuncture point in the fingertip of the other hand. Southampton University has conducted the most extensive studies so far undertaken on electro-dermal testing machines, but say they have no scientific basis. This is the test I opted for and my experiences are described at http://hubpages.com/hub/VEGA-testing
The elimination diet and re-introduction of suspect foods
A diary of symptoms and foods eaten is kept to identify culprit foods and these are then eliminated from the diet for a period of time, usually about 2 months, to allow the body to recover. One food is re-introduced at a time and any reactions observed.
A personal experience with VEGA testing and the elimination diet
If you're interested in the practicalities of coping with an elimination diet, you can find more information at http://hubpages.com/hub/What-is-food-intolerance-testing-and-does-an-elimination-diet-work
If you are suffering from any of the symptoms listed in this hub please do go and see your doctor for a checkup and discuss your options with your doctor regarding any food allergy or food intolerance tests you may want to undertake.
For further information about food allergies see the following links:
- Food allergy - symptoms, treatment and causes
Common symptoms, causes and treatment of food allergy - Bupa health information factsheet
- Food allergy vs. food intolerance: What's the difference?
Article written by Mayo Clinic asthma and allergy specialist James T. Li, M.D.