How often do you find yourself talking to someone at a party who claims to have a food allergy? Pretty often these days, if my experience is anything to go by. But, until recently, if you talked to a medical ‘expert’ they would ‘pooh-pooh’ the suggestion, maintaining that it was all fashion and that in reality, less than 1% of the population were allergic to food. But that could all change.
Two recent reports (one from The Royal College of Physicians and the other from Edinburgh University – and you could not get a much more eminent than that) suggest that at least one third of the total UK population will develop an allergy at some point in their lives. Admittedly, not all of those allergies are food allergies but it is known that potentially fatal peanut allergy now affects one in 70 children, while ‘multi system allergies’ (hay fever, asthma, eczema and food allergies) are increasing dramatically. But as both reports also points out the NHS is, at the moment, totally unable to cope with this mushrooming in allergic disease. As it stands there are only 6 allergy clinics in the whole of the UK (most of them in the south east) and only 1 allergy consultant for each 2,000,000 of the population – against 1 consultant for each 100,000 of the population for cardiology or gastroenterology.
If this were not all bad enough there is a further complication. Although there are a growing number of people who suffer from food allergies such as peanut, there are a far larger number of people who suffer from what is known as a food intolerance or food sensitivity – and they are not the same thing.
You have a food (or any other kind of) allergy when contact with a particular food or substance sets off a reaction within your immune system. (Your immune system mistakes the food for something dangerous and pulls out all the stops to destroy it.) This is relatively easy for a doctor to deal with in as much as there is a specific test you can take which will show whether or not you are allergic and although there is, as yet, no ‘cure’ at least you then know that you have to avoid that food or substance.
But many people who are quite sure that they are reacting badly to one or more foods do not show up positive on any of those allergy tests. For them the situation is rather different.
Food ‘intolerance’ very rarely happens out of the blue. For the vast majority of sufferers it is a ‘symptom’ of some other health problem. For example, most people will have heard for lactose intolerance, especially among babies. Lactose is the sugar to be found in all milk, including breast milk. We all normally produce an enzyme in our guts which enables them to digest the lactose sugar in the milk. However, if either a baby or an adult has a stomach upset, the resulting diarrhoea will wash all the lactase enzyme out of the gut. So when they drink milk, the undigested lactose sugar will ferment and cause nausea, cramps, wind and other symptoms. Given time the lactase will restablish itself and all will be well. So, in this case, it is not that the person is intolerant to milk, but that their guts have been temporarily deprived of the enzyme they need to digest it.
Alternatively, if someone has had a number of stomach upsets or has had a viral infection, the lining of their digestive tract may have got damaged and become slightly porous. (This is known as a leaky gut!) This means that partially digested particles of foods may get through the porous gut wall and into the blood stream. Since our bodies are certainly not designed to have chunks of partially digested food proteins circulating in our blood, these can set up all kinds of reactions (aching joints, headaches, skin irritations, even psychiatric problems such as depression or hyperactivity) elsewhere in the system. But once again, the food intolerance is a symptom of a damaged digestive system, not a condition in itself.
The difficult thing about these intolerances is that they are very difficult to track down – there is no guaranteed test to identify them and they can sometimes take many hours or even days to show up. The only real way to pin them down is by eliminating the food that you suspect from your diet for, say, two weeks – seeing if you feel better - and then re-introducing it and seeing if you feel worse again.
However the cheering thing is that you are much more likely to recover from a food intolerance than you are from an allergy. Very often, taking good stock of your life style, improving your diet, cutting down on the cigarettes and the alcohol, taking more exercise and reducing your stress levels – all those boring old mantras – will improve your overall health to the point at which your digestion will be able to cope quite comfortably with foods which, a couple months earlier, might have sent you rushing to the loo, or coming our in hives.