Food Allergy Awareness Month 2023
Many of us confuse the terms ‘food intolerance’ and ‘food allergy’ and use them to mean the same thing.
However, it’s important to note that both have significant differences from each other, and for people with food allergies these are important contrasts.
What is a food allergy?
A food allergy involves your immune system reacting in an unusual way to something you ate. Your immune system has the job of protecting you from potential harm. It has to distinguish between substances that can become dangerous and those which are harmless.
Once your immune system has detected food it sees as foreign, it begins to fight back by releasing inflammatory chemicals to tackle the intruder food item.
In fact, your immune system is able to recall substances it has previously encountered. Amazingly, this is due to antibody production which can act as a memory switch to remind your body about the foreign foodstuff now being ingested.
Most common form of food allergy
The most common types of food allergy stem from the generation of immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies. NHS data predicts that around 3% of the UK population have this type of food allergy.1
Every time a person sensitive to food allergies ingests a certain food that triggers this antibody, their immune system will predictably respond in a similar manner just as it’s been trained before. This is an unintentional reaction on behalf of the immune system and can be a genetic response.
A food allergy is often instantly obvious and shows itself in predictable ways. For instance, if you get a skin rash every time you consume strawberries, then it’s most likely a food allergy.
Common food allergies are triggered by foods such as shellfish, eggs, peanuts and soya. Symptoms can vary from a skin rash to sneezing or digestive issues.
Serious food allergies
Some allergies can be life-threatening, such as those to nuts which can cause anaphylactic shock. Even the smallest amounts of the food that causes this reaction are capable of producing a response.
Those people who have a severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis) to a food item, should make sure others around them know to dial 999 and tell the ambulance operator they think someone is having a severe allergic reaction.
Food sensitivities involve a different antibody, IgG, which occur when food particles that have not been digested are absorbed into the body due to a permeable intestinal lining.
In this form, they are unrecognisable to the immune system, and so an attack is launched. Additionally, some people may be sensitive to ingredients used in food production, particularly synthetic ingredients or artificial substances.
Food sensitivities can trigger delayed reactions, with a variety of symptoms manifesting in almost any part of the body and may include headaches, tiredness, bloating or feelings of sickness.
The facts about food intolerance
Food intolerances are different from food allergies. They are caused by the body’s inability to process or digest certain foods, which can result in symptoms like an upset stomach, bloating, gas, and nausea.
Food intolerances aren’t caused by the immune system; they are brought on when the body can’t process food. As with lactose intolerance, it’s possible that there is inadequate enzyme production to break down a certain protein, or that you have a sensitivity to some of the chemicals found in food.
The intensity and timing of a food intolerance reaction can vary, making it tricky to pinpoint. It can occur within hours or take a few days to show. The amount of irritating substance consumed or other elements in the meal could also influence its severity.
Lactose intolerance is one of the most common food intolerances, caused by an issue with the enzyme that helps to break down lactose.
Additionally, some people may have a sensitivity to ingredients like caffeine. Even in small doses, caffeine can bring on symptoms such as anxiety, sleeplessness and unease. You may be aware of egg sensitivity, which can be another possible cause of digestive disorders, like diarrhoea and abdominal discomfort.
The link between gut microbiota and food allergies
Gut microbiota play a role in food allergies. Studies have demonstrated that altered gut flora can affect the immune system and may lead to allergic reactions.
It has been found that an imbalance of microbes is possibly linked to the development of allergies, particularly in children. This suggests that modifications to the microbiome might be a potential method of preventing and treating food allergies.
Recent research has shown that people suffering from food allergies tend to possess an altered gut microbiome in comparison to healthy individuals. Key beneficial microorganisms that characterise normal gut flora are absent which may explain why those with food allergies are responding differently to dietary triggers.
Food allergies and birth
Research regarding the microbiome’s role in food allergies reinforces the idea that its impact begins at birth. Those born through vaginal delivery have more diversity in their microbiome, potentially warding off future sensitivity.
Furthermore, breastfeeding provides certain helpful bacteria to the baby that may aid the growth of beneficial microbial species and help educate newborn immune systems. The use of antibiotics in pregnant women and babies may be sometimes necessary due to infections, but it has been linked to a greater chance of having allergies later in life.
Food allergies and lifestyle
The hygiene hypothesis of allergy regularly pops up online these days, suggesting that increased contact with germs may reduce your ability to avoid allergies. This doesn’t relate to tidying your space or washing your hands, but more so to the reduction of microorganisms in your environment that help build up immunity.
Studies in both humans and animals have established a link between dysbiosis (imbalance of organisms in gut microflora) and the development of food allergies. Certain species of gut microbiota can have an effect on immune response, helping to desensitise potential food allergies.
It’s important to be aware of common food allergens and how your body reacts to certain foods. Additionally, it helps to know the difference between allergies, intolerances and sensitivities in order to easily avoid any potential health issues.
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