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Food Allergies & Food Sensitivities
“Can food allergies and food sensitivities cause health problems?” This is a question we are frequently asked by patients. The answer is “yes”; foods can lead to many health problems including immune system problems, chronic pain, inflammation, sinus infections, stomach pain, ear infections, asthma and various skin disorders. In fact, foods can cause all sorts of health problems and the best way to find out if you have a food-caused health problem is to have appropriate blood tests performed.
Digestive Tract and Immune System
Your digestive tract and immune system are very closely linked to one another; in fact, most of the immune system of the entire body is found in the vicinity ofthe digestive tract. One of the biggest jobs your immune system has is to “assess” the foods you eat every day. It must constantly make the choice; declare war or permit the food to pass by without sounding the alarms!
How can food cause health problems “outside” the digestive tract?
The idea that foods can cause health issues beyond the digestive tract can be difficult for most people (including doctors) to understand. The scientific explanation for how this can occur, lies in a specialized segment of the immune system called MALT (mucosa-associated-lymphoid tissues). The intestinal immune system is the biggest part of the immune system that communicates with other mucosal surfaces and related organs like the sinuses, ears, lungs, thyroid, skin, urogenital tract and breasts. When the immune system is triggered in the digestive tract, immune cells travel in the blood stream and trigger an immune response in distant tissues like the ears, eyes, lungs, skin, etc. This is why changing the diet can improve asthma, sinus infections, ear infections, skin conditions like eczema and thyroid problems just to name a few.
Food Allergy vs Sensitivity
Food allergy and food sensitivity have one common and essential similarity; they are both an inappropriate response of the immune system to food(s). The way we distinguish an allergy from a sensitivity is HOW the immune system responds to the food in question. If the immune system responds by activating antibodies called IgE antibodies, then we call it a food allergy. If the immune system responds by activating other aspects of the immune system such as IgG or IgA antibodies then we call it a food sensitivity.
Some people actually suffer from both food allergies and food sensitivities.
Food allergy symptoms are generally much easier to identify; such as abdominal pain, diarrhea, hives, skin rashes, flushing, difficulty breathing, swelling or tingling sensations. Food allergy symptoms generally occur shortly after eating certain foods; thus making them easier to identify.
Food sensitivities can also cause some of these symptoms but may also cause joint pain or stiffness, sinus problems, ear infections, skin disorders, immune system problems, etc. Food sensitivities can be more difficult to identify than food allergies because symptoms may not occur shortly after eating the food; adverse reactions can occur days after consuming the offending food.
Food Testing Options
There are 4 food allergy / food sensitivity blood tests that have been used by doctors for years:
- IgE food allergy blood tests: this test measures the levels IgE antibodies to various foods. This is the test used to identify food allergies (not sensitivities).
- IgG food sensitivity blood test: this test measure the levels of IgG antibodies to various foods. This test is used to detect food sensitivities. IgG antibodies can cause many different symptoms outside the digestive tract.
- IgG / IgA food sensitivity blood test: this test measures the levels of IgG antibodies and the levels of IgA antibodies to various foods. The digestive tract produces large amounts of IgA antibodies and helps protect the digestive tract and improves immune tolerance to food in general.
- ALCAT blood test: this is a blood test that measures immune system responses to foods and other substances at the cellular level; it does not measure antibodies.
Pros and Cons
Each of these tests have their pros and cons. The IgE test will only detect a food allergy and more people have food sensitivities than food allergies. The IgG food test will not detect food allergies and does not assess IgA; the most vital antibody produced by the digestive tract. The IgG / IgA test will not detect food allergies. The ALCAT test does not assess antibodies but may detect an in appropriate immune response to various foods.
We offer all of these tests in our office and can select the best test(s) for your needs.
If you have been researching food testing, the subject can become rather confusing. There are many different opinions on the proper use and validity of food testing. One thing is agreed upon however; foods can definitely cause health problems for many people.
Without testing, it can be very difficult to determine which foods are causing an immune system problem and which foods are not. Maybe you have eaten a food and experienced a negative response, only to find that the next time you eat it nothing happens! Or the reaction may be occurring days after having eaten the food! Blood tests can help reduce much of this confusion.
The biggest mistake that is made with regard to food sensitivity testing is interpreting the test results. If your doctor does not understand the relationship between specific foods and food groups, then your results will just look like a bunch of random foods you should avoid. Why would your immune system make antibodies to banana, shrimp, tomatoes, blueberries and lemons? It may not seem obvious to you (or your doctor) but there are 3 different food patterns just in these 5 foods. They appear to be random but they are not. Food testing is NOT only about the foods that come up on the test, but how they may or may not be related so that an effective dietary plan can be created.
At Naperville Integrated Wellness, we perform food allergy and sensitivity testing as described above. We find that this helps us create a more specific diet plan for our patients and achieve better health outcomes.**