Spring is in the air, and some of us will be sniffling, sneezing and itching our way into the new equinox. While we might rightfully attribute our discomfort to seasonal allergies like hay fever, it’s also possible that some of these annoying symptoms may be caused by a sensitivity to certain foods.  Food reactions are a frequently overlooked cause of chronic health issues. 

There’s been a lot of attention on food allergies in recent years—nuts, wheat and dairy come to mind—and the problem is becoming practically epidemic. Some say it’s getting worse because our food supply has been tainted by GMO crops, some blame rampant use of antibiotics…whatever the reason, living with a food intolerance or allergy is at the least inconvenient and at the worst life threatening.  

The science 

A food allergy occurs when your body’s immune system—which is trained to find and destroy germs—mistakenly identifies a food as a threat and attacks it. The body fights the perceived enemy with histamine and other chemicals that result in a significant, and often sudden, physical reaction. Even a small amount of food can trigger an allergic reaction, which can be severe. Some people with food allergies are at risk for life-threatening anaphylaxis.  

Food intolerance is not quite as acute as a true food allergy. Most often, it occurs when the body can’t properly absorb nutrients, or responds adversely to the presence of specific chemicals or enzymes in foods. Reactions may take several hours after eating to appear and are mostly seen affecting the skin and the gastrointestinal tract. Abdominal cramps and nausea are common symptoms, but the reactions do not always occur in the same way when eating the offending food.  

A  food sensitivity is defined by some professionals as a negative reaction to certain foods that do not always occur in the same way. This category is the least understood and most difficult to diagnose of the categories.   

The signs 

The Mayo Clinic outlines symptoms that might result from consuming a food when an intolerance or allergy is present.  

Skin 

▪ Tingling or itching in the mouth 
▪ Hives, itching or eczema  

Respiratory 

▪ Wheezing, nasal congestion or trouble breathing 
▪ Swelling of the lips, face, tongue and throat or other parts of the body  

Gastrointestinal 

▪ Abdominal pain, diarrhea, nausea or vomiting 
▪ Dizziness, light headedness or fainting  

The presence of less severe—but still aggravating—symptoms such as brain fog, sadness or depression, headaches, achy joints or periodic breakouts may also signal a food sensitivity.  

Anaphylaxis 

Very severe allergic reactions, called anaphylaxis, can be life threatening. Contact emergency personnel immediately if constriction or tightening of the airways occurs, or if someone experiences rapid pulse or shock with a severe drop in blood pressure.  

The culprits 

Did you know that 90% of food allergies are caused by just eight foods? They are peanuts, tree nuts, milk, eggs, wheat, soy, fish and shellfish. But when it comes to food, nearly any consumable can cause discomfort. One well-known offender is red wine, with its sulfites and naturally-occurring proteins. Mangos, part of the poison oak family, can be irritating when the skin of the mango comes in contact with a sensitive person. Even strawberries and kiwi fruit, seemingly unrelated, both contain an allergen similar to birch pollen.   

The remedies  

Of course, the easiest way to prevent symptoms is to avoid the foods that cause them. But it’s not always that simple, especially when eating in restaurants or dining at friends’ homes. For immediate relief of mild discomfort, consider digestive aids such as ginger, chamomile or peppermint tea. Some people report that acupuncture has helped their symptoms. For the most severe food allergies, some medical professionals recommend carrying an epinephrine pen to immediately counteract any reactions that may occur.   

The daily details 

Whether you have a food allergy or you care for someone who does, thinking ahead will help you reduce stress and anxiety.  

  • When dining out, ask your server about how your meal will be prepared. It may not always be clear from the menu whether some dishes contain problem foods.  
  • Read all product labels carefully before purchasing and consuming any grocery  store item.   
  • Some families allow problem foods into their home, but take precautions to keep the family member who has food sensitivities safe. Others find it easier to implement a total ban.    
  • Shop for alternatives. Retailers are offering more product options than ever, such as rice noodles and nut flours used in gluten-free diets.   
  • Eat fresher. Histamine builds up in food over time, so enjoy what you’ve grown or  purchased as soon as you can.  
  • Don’t forget to check condiments and seasonings. They may contain MSG or another additive that can cause symptoms.  
  • Identify yourself. If your allergies are severe, wear medical identification.   

 Children and Pets 

Both children and pets can suffer from food allergies and intolerances too, but they need your help determining when something they’ve eaten doesn’t make them feel well. Listen to what your kids say about how they feel and keep track of what they eat if the symptoms persist. And pay attention to Fluffy and Fido for changes in their behavior or elimination habits after mealtimes.