Thursday, April 19, 2012

Allergy or Food Intolerance: Does It Matter?

Yes! It matters. Let me tell you why, and how that knowledge can help you.

I just recently came across some really great information that opened up a whole new understanding for me of my own food reactions. The health implications are valuable and important to understand. And the really good news is there is potentially a little more flexibility with eating certain foods!

So, you may recall, a few months ago I discovered my own sensitivities to lots of different foods, and I decided to just get real and stay away from those.

(Since I wrote that article, there have been a few painful blips along that road that have encouraged me to stay on the straight and narrow.)

These 'sensitivities' manifest as allergic-type responses. 

That might be sinus congestion, body swelling or water retention, hives, rash, general malaise, a funky mood, digestive pain or disturbances, headache, etc. Symptoms vary, but the presence of symptoms indicates something is off with certain foods being in my body.

However, I just learned these may not all be the big bad of allergies, per se, and why that is valuable information!

Some of these may simply be food intolerances. And, while I'd heard about food intolerances vs. allergies before, I see now I did not understand the real difference.

Telling them apart can be challenging because the most easily observable responses can be so very similar. 

But telling them apart is useful because they have very different health implications!

Here's where they're the same: allergies and food intolerances both create a histamine response.

Histamine in and of itself is the basis for any allergic-type response or experience. This can manifest along a whole continuum of potential responses from a mild headache to anaphylactic shock and death.

Antihistamines are brilliant at controlling these reactions. They are useful when you need them.

But, take note, if you are taking antihistamines regularly, they will mask your body's true response to foods and has negative health consequences over time. A daily antihistamine should not be a lifestyle choice if you value your health.

Did you know, though, that some foods actually contain high histamine levels, or cause the body to release histamine?

Linked here is a great list of histamine foods from the physicians at Michigan Allergy, Sinus & Asthma Specialists.

Some people are just more sensitive to histamine foods, or they can develop that sensitivity during certain times.

Eating high histamine foods can create what seems to be a full blown allergic response from the build up of histamine, but they do not necessarily provoke your immune system.

And food intolerances are born! All the allergy-type reaction without the actual immune system response of a true allergen.

True food allergies trigger the immune system to respond and attack the foreign invader. That's in addition to the histamine response. 

(Be advised: you can be actually allergic to a high histamine food, so it's important to not overlook that possibility.)

When the immune system is triggered that way, eating these foods creates a big stress within the body.

You develop antibodies in the blood (which can then be tracked by a blood test), systemic inflammation, use up nutrients by the truckload, generate cortisol, and poke minuscule holes in your intestine that lead to leaky gut condition and auto-toxicity, which is creating a feedback loop of increasing inflammation and making you sick or sicker.

That's a big cascade of bad. And most of us have a history of consuming allergenic foods (in addition to the less concerning but still histamine-inducing food intolerances), so we're walking around with some degree of this already.

Figuring out the differences between foods that are allergies for your body vs. just intolerances opens up dietary options and gives you more control over your health. 

The good news is that a food intolerance, while uncomfortable if you have a reaction, is safe to eat. You don't have to worry about creating that nasty cascade of immune responses in its wake. Even if you eat a large amount of the offending substance, you won't be damaging your body.

With a true food allergy, however, you want to avoid it entirely. Even tiny amounts - well below the threshold even for a noticeable reaction - will be a damaging hit on your immune system and contribute to systemic inflammation. Inflammation makes you feel sick on the way to shortening your life. Not what you want!

So how can you figure out what's an allergen and what's a food intolerance?

Allergy testing. 

One way to go is to see a skilled allergist and get your blood thoroughly tested. You will get a laundry list of substances your particular body is allergic to. If you can do this, I highly recommend it.

But, if you can't do that, it's not not the only way to go to suss out the foods that are causing you problems.

Allergens have certain hallmarks.

Allergens cause cravings. 

It's a funny phenomenon that you will tend to crave the very foods you are allergic to.

For example, I am quite sure I have an actual allergy to gluten, milk fat, and sugar.

If I eat them, I need to eat them. And having a bad reaction rarely deters me until it's fully out of my system again. But after eating it just one time, it can take weeks to stop craving it assuming I manage to stop myself from eating it again.

Do you recognize that with any foods you eat? If so, they are likely true allergens.

Allergens will raise your resting pulse rate. 

Because they create an immune response, your heart rate reacts.

You can test this out for yourself by checking your pulse rate and monitor it after eating a suspected allergen.

To test it, the process is easy and simple:

  1. Take your baseline pulse rate in between meals and before you eat the test food. 
  2. Eat just the food you're testing. No combinations. So, if you're checking eggs, eat only the eggs.
  3. Take your pulse at 15 minute intervals after you eat. Do this four times. (You'll be checking it for an hour after eating.)
  4. Result: if your pulse rate goes up by 10+ points at any point in this cycle, you are experiencing a significant physiological stress response from that food, and you are most probably allergic to it. 

Allergens tend to create mental and emotional disturbances. 

Look out for the foods that create not just physiological discomfort, but emotional and mood disturbances as well.

This isn't foolproof. Stronger histamine responses can also create mood disturbances. But full blown allergic responses usually have this side effect.

This one requires careful observation and tracking.

One of the best ways is to keep a food diary where you write down everything you eat and drink, and note any emotions, thoughts, and moods that happen and when they occur. Over time, patterns emerge that show you links between the foods and your mental/emotional responses.

Use your intuition. 

Empirical testing is always useful, and I am not discounting it. But an often overlooked resource is our own intuitive knowing which is, I believe, a natural function of our human bodies.

You may already have an intuitive feeling or awareness about certain foods for you that cause you problems, and whether they are true allergens or just food intolerances. I encourage you to listen to that awareness!

Our bodies do talk to us, and now that you understand there's a difference, you may be able to sense that difference for yourself more easily with different foods.

Conversely, you may struggle with that intuitive knowing if your body is biochemically caught up in allergic or immune system reactions. If that's the case, you'll need to rely more on empirical testing to be certain of your body's true responses. Some of these other techniques will help you to determine which foods are toxic (allergenic) for you, and help you avoid them.

As you take steps to calm your body down by avoiding triggering foods, keep yourself tuned to start noticing the differences in your body awareness. As inflammation clears, intuition in all things often dials up. This is just another beneficial side effect of working with instead of against your body!

Ultimately, it's about your health. 

Whatever approaches you decide to take, I encourage you to learn about your body's sensitivities in order to take better control of your health and well being. Feeling good is the highest form of wealth you can have! And much of it is in your direct control.

Comments from your experiences are very welcome! If you find this information valuable, please share it with your friends and loved ones. Let's help each other be well. 

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  1. Brilliant! Thank you so much for sharing this!! Will be using the pulse technique--thank you! <3!

    1. Fantastic! I'll be curious to know how that goes for you, and what you discover.



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