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It’s always a bit unsettling when your little one gets sick—especially if you’re a new parent. But imagine the panic when simply feeding your baby triggers gagging, vomiting, and troubled breathing. That’s exactly what happened to Lucy Gibney’s four-month-old son the first time she fed him a bottle of formula. Fortunately, Lucy is Lucy Gibney, MD. “Being an emergency physician really came in handy that day,” she says. A dose of liquid antihistamine and a speedy trip to the ER calmed the crisis, but after seeing a pediatric allergist, Gibney discovered that the problem went far beyond her son’s formula. After a thorough evaluation and testing, she found that he was allergic to a host of foods.
Unfortunately, the Gibneys aren’t alone. The Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN) estimates that 12 million Americans are allergic to one or more foods. That includes one in every 12 children. And food allergies are on the rise. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report an 18 percent jump in cases between 1997 and 2007. For some, food allergies are just an annoyance. For others, they can be debilitating and even deadly.
Why can one person eat a food and be perfectly fine, while another can eat the same food and become gravely ill? When someone has a food allergy, their immune system mistakenly attacks certain food proteins. Typically, the first time the offending food is eaten, the immune system creates an army of antibodies called immunoglobulin E (IgE). The next time you eat that food, these IgE antibodies trigger the release of histamine in an effort to rid the body of what it thinks is a foreign invader. What happens next depends largely on how severe the allergy is. A mild allergic reaction can show up as a rash, eczema, or changes in stool. A more serious reaction can include vomiting, diarrhea, hives, or a relentless runny nose with facial swelling and sneezing. The most severe allergic reaction, called anaphylaxis, can occur within minutes and up to two hours after exposure. At its most intense, breathing can become labored, blood pressure can suddenly drop, and the person may even lose consciousness. This extreme reaction to a food allergen, known as anaphylactic shock, can be fatal.
“Virtually any food can cause an allergic reaction,” says Elson Haas, MD, founder and director of the Preventive Medical Center of Marin in San Rafael, Calif. But for most people with allergies, milk, eggs, wheat, soy, peanuts, tree nuts like almonds and walnuts, fish, and shellfish are the most frequent culprits. The good news is that most children outgrow their allergies to milk, eggs, soy, and wheat by the time they turn 10. But, notes Haas, allergies to peanuts, tree nuts, fish, or shellfish typically last a lifetime and can be quite serious.
There are several ways to diagnose food allergies. For Gibney’s son, a history of reactions was enough to confirm that he had a severe milk allergy. This is why it’s important to keep a food diary listing any reactions to specific foods. The most common way to diagnose a food allergy is with a “prick” or “scratch” test. A diluted extract of the suspected food is placed on the skin, then that area is scratched with a needle. If the area becomes red or inflamed, it’s a good bet that the patient has the IgE antibody that is specific for the food being tested. As a follow up, your allergist may recommend a food elimination diet that removes the suspicious foods to see if the reaction goes away. The foods are then gradually re-introduced one at a time to see if problems occur.
It’s possible to “outgrow” allergies. An allergist can periodically check antibody levels, and if they are declining, a “food challenge” can determine if the food can now be tolerated. The food is first given in small amounts, and the patient’s vital signs, breathing, and skin are monitored closely for any early signs of reaction. Food challenges are also used to confirm the results of a skin prick test.
Symptoms of gluten sensitivity may include bloating, abdominal discomfort, pain, diarrhea, headaches and migraines, lethargy and tiredness, and fatigue. The more serious celiac disease is an autoimmune disease in which a person can’t tolerate gluten, a protein in wheat, rye, barley, and other grains. Gluten is also hiding in many other foods, including some cold cuts, salad dressings, and even licorice.
In celiac disease, the lining of the small intestine becomes inflamed and damaged, which hampers the absorption of nutrients and can lead to malnutrition and weight loss. Poor calcium absorption can result in joint and tooth problems. It often takes years to diagnose because doctors mistake it for irritable bowel syndrome or other diseases.
Avoiding allergens requires constant vigilance, and that means reading labels. The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA) requires that U.S. manufacturers list common food allergens on ingredient labels. It’s a good start, but the system isn’t failsafe. Packaging and formulation errors, ingredient switching, and foods produced on shared equipment can be sources of hidden food allergens.
Some, but not enough, foods also sport “may contain” advisories on their packaging. A recent survey of more than 20,000 foods found that only 17 percent contained advisory labels.
Unlike a food sensitivity or an intolerance, a true food allergy requires strict avoidance 24/7—a feat that isn’t always easy. In case of accidental exposure, it’s smart to plan ahead. Always carry injectable epinephrine (an EpiPen or Twinject) with you if it has been prescribed, along with instructions for using it. If your child is in the care of another person, make sure to provide the steps that should be taken in the event of an allergic reaction.
Eat Out Safely
Hidden ingredients, cross-contamination, and uninformed kitchen staff can easily trigger a reaction in restaurants. You can minimize this by speaking to the manager about your allergies and by providing the kitchen staff with a card that lists the foods you cannot eat. You can find a customizable chef’s card template at foodallergy.org.
Click here for the ALLERGEN-FREE SHORTCAKE BISCUITS recipe
Homeopathic Help For Food Allergies
Homeopathic treatments are a safe adjunct to first-line care and precautions. Alan V. Schmukler, a homeopathy instructor and author of Homeopathy: An A to Z Home Handbook, recommends the following:
Recommended if symptoms of allergic reaction include burning, stinging pain in the throat, swollen face or throat. Symptoms become worse with warmth.
Advised if reaction includes hives. Specific for shellfish reaction.
Used for symptoms including swollen throat, constricted airway, and difficulty breathing or swallowing.
Take if reactions include red, itching skin, a heavy feeling in the chest, restlessness and anxiousness, thirst, and if symptoms improve with warmth.
Our Product Picks
NATRABIO ALLERGY RELIEF (GRAIN AND WHEAT) blends several homeopathic medicines that specifically address allergic reactions to grain and wheat, including stomach upset, diarrhea, and skin rash.
BOIRON ARSENICUM ALBUM 30C Arsenicum album is recommended for multiple food allergies, as well as traveler’s diarrhea. Dissolve 5 pellets in the mouth three times a day until relieved or as directed.
ENZYMEDICA GLUTENEASE supports people with gluten or casein intolerance with specially formulated enzymes that assist in normalizing inflammatory response to the gluten peptide.