When you have seasonal, pollen-based allergies, you know there’s an end in sight. It may be the tail end of the cottonwood season, for instance, or in autumn the Chinese elm. You just have to sniffle and suffer through.
Food allergies are not so considerate. A food trigger that causes an upset stomach or a life-threatening anaphylactic shock is just a bite away — every day, every season.
An allergic reaction, says Tanner Clinic immunologist Dr. Marc Anderson, occurs “when your body recognizes something that’s foreign and then reacts to it.”
So why are pollen or peanuts “foreign” invaders for some of us and not others? The answer, says Dr. Anderson, is a hyperactive immune system that sees trouble (mistakenly) in every particle. As for the reason that people with allergies have this hypersensitivity, look to mom and dad. Yes, genetics hits again.
When your body sees pollen as some unknown attacker, you’re left with itchy red eyes, congestion and sneezing.
Food allergies, on the other hand, will result in hives, swelling lips, chronic stomach problems, fatigue and, worst of all, anaphylaxis, a potentially fatal situation where a victim’s throat swells and closes off.
And some of the most common allergens — substances that spark allergies — are foods many of us consume daily. Think milk, corn, walnuts or eggs. Corn is an especially difficult allergy, Dr. Anderson said, because high fructose corn syrup exists in so many processed foods, as does corn starch.
Symptoms can be misleading
An anaphylactic scare will bring people into Dr. Anderson’s office. For other patients, however, they simply don’t feel well and suspect that allergies may play a role.
These patients are “chronically fatigued or have persistent diarrhea,” he said. “They just don’t feel good, or they’re always congested year-round and they keep getting tested for sinus conditions.”
Because many allergens are in foods people eat everyday, an individual may have chronic problems — stomach disorders, for instance, or fatigue — and “they don’t realize they’re sick until they take that food out of their diet,” Dr. Anderson said. “When they put it back in, they can tell what’s going on.”
Celiac disease or wheat allergy?
With recent attention on celiac disease, Dr. Anderson is seeing higher demand by people who think they may have the disorder for the diagnostic test or scope. However, he has not seeing a parallel increase in “positives” for this digestive disorder in which people cannot tolerate gluten.
An individual who tests negative, however, may test positive for a regular allergy such as wheat or for an intolerance of foods containing gluten.
A common question asked of the allergist is: “Should I go gluten-free?” Try it, says Dr. Anderson, “Many patients tell me, ‘I went gluten-free and I feel much better.’”
That’s because celiac disease, wheat allergy or a wheat intolerance all require the same basic treatment: Don’t eat wheat.
When gluten sensitivity turns out to be a wheat allergy, people can gauge the severity of the allery by experimenting at home. Basically, he said, if they eat wheat and have a mild reaction, “they can cheat occasionally.”
Celiac disease is must less amenable to cheaters, he adds, “because you have a higher chance of getting lymphoma. People with celiac’s disease have a better chance of developing certain cancers if they’re not compliant.”
Some decide to ‘just live with it’
People are often surprised when they learn what triggers their allergic reaction. Some, adds Dr. Anderson, simply “don’t believe you.”
In those cases, he says, “We tell them how they can differentiate allergies when they go home, and they can define on their own how allergic they are.”
Some patients are good at following doctors’ order, and some are not, he said. “It all depends on their symptoms. I have some patients who are allergic to wheat and corn and soy — that’s all the processed food. They take it out of their diet and feel so much better they don’t want to return to eating it,” he said.
“Others just live with it.They say ‘I’d rather not worry about it.’ and keep eating.”