WHAT IS A FOOD ALLERGY?
A food allergic reaction is a swift and proportionately adverse reaction of the body’s immune system to a food substance that is otherwise harmless. The substance responsible for the allergy is called an allergen and typically the allergen is a type of protein. Sometimes the body detects the protein in a food group (like dairy,soy, wheat, fish, shell-fish, eggs, tree-nuts, peanuts and soy) as a potential threat and hence goes into overdrive to protect the body from this threat.
The process of protecting the body results in an extreme external reaction like:
• Difficulty in breathing or wheezing.
• Skin reaction in the form of rashes and hives.
• Digestive disorder accompanied by vomiting and severe diarrhea.
• Swelling of the trachea leading to suffocation (which can be fatal).
THE SCIENCE BEHIND AN ALLERGIC REACTION
Our immune system is our body’s defense against all things harmful. When a foreign particle enters the human body the immune system releases antibodies to tackle the foreign object.
In the case of food allergies the antibodies involved are called Immunoglobulin E (IgE). Once formed IgE antibodies attach themselves to immune cells called mast cells (which tend to be found in areas of the body most vulnerable to invasion). When one consumes a protein that one is sensitive to, the allergens and their corresponding IgE antibody bind together. This binding causes the mast cells to get activated and release inflammatory chemicals like histamines.
The problem in an allergic reaction is, the volume of anti-inflammatory chemicals released in the body causes unwanted changes to the body, because, the immune system has gone into overdrive to flush the “invader” out. Hence the rapid onset of reactions like swelling, rashes, diarrhea and vomiting. The trouble is that this reaction can range from being uncomfortable to distressing to life-threatening.
REASONS FOR FOOD ALLERGIES
There is no definitive answer on why one is allergic to a certain food group. Some of the popular explanations narrow it down to the following reasons:
• Hereditary: It is genetic and while may not have been detected in previous generations has been caught now either due to medical advancement or because the reaction has become more pronounced in the current generation.
• Altered gut bacteria because of the change in our diets and also due to exposure to anti-biotics.
• Altered nutrition because of: Increased consumption of processed foods which are nutritionally poor. Extended shelf-life of fresh produce through the use of artificial preservation techniques. Traces of chemical based pesticides and fertilizers in our produce. Increased exposure to growth hormones used on our cattle and poultry.
• Increase in environmental pollutants and chemicals that are harmful to the body
THE MAJOR FOOD ALLERGENS
Most of the information on food allergens are based on western societies. There isn’t very much data available on allergens in eastern societies. Around 90% of food allergy reactions in the Western World is caused by:
• Milk • Eggs • Wheat • Soy • Peanut • Treenuts • Fish • Shell-fish
WHAT IS FOOD INTOLERANCE?
Food intolerance is a delayed adverse reaction to a food. This reaction can occur within a few hours to a couple of days post consumption of a certain food group. Unlike in a food allergy the reaction in the case of an intolerance is not rapid or alarming or potentially fatal. Also in the case of a food intolerance the immune system is not involved. The symptoms in case of a food intolerance ranges from diarrhea, stomach bloating, lethargy, headaches and skin disorders.
POPULAR TYPES OF FOOD INTOLERANCE
The two most popular types of food intolerance in are lactose intolerance and gluten intolerance (Celiac Disease).
What is Lactose Intolerance?
This is the inability to digest lactose, the sugar found in milk and milk products. It is caused by a lack of the enzyme lactase in the body, which breaks down lactose. When the lactose in the body does not break down it creates gas and draws water into the gut leading to symptoms of bloating, wind, diarrhea and abdominal pain.
What is Celiac Disease?
This is a lifelong disease caused by intolerance to gluten, the protein in wheat and few other grains like rye and barley. In people suffering from gluten-intolerance, the gluten causes an auto immune or “self-attacking” response in the intestine, which damages the gut thus preventing it from absorbing nutrients properly.
Symptoms of gluten intolerance include bloating, diarrhea, constipation, weight-loss, mouth ulcers, malnutrition, excessive fatigue and anemia. A person suffering from celiac disease feels constantly unwell.
Celiac Disease is most prevalent in countries or regions that have high wheat based diet. In the context of India the incidence of Celiac Disease is higher in the Northern part of the country.