The long list of gluten-free foods on grocery store shelves combined with the phenomenon of peanut-free schools, one can’t help but assume more people are suffering from food intolerances and allergies. When two Oklahoma doctors are asked if this is truly the epidemic, their answer is, maybe not. With the sheer number of foods people can be intolerant of, it’s hard to really pinpoint an increase.
“You’re comparing apples to oranges,” says Dr. Lynn Wiens, an allergist at Warren Clinic in Saint Francis Health System.
Increases may be related to improved medical techniques to diagnose intolerances. “Testing is better, so we can confirm things we only suspected before,” adds Dr. Carey Waters, a family physician with St. John Medical Center.
To add to the complexity, intolerances and allergies can present at any age, says Waters. Many are also often outgrown, adds Wiens.
Bodies can be intolerant to just about anything, from preservatives and acidic foods to MSG. The list of possible intolerances goes on. However, gluten and lactose intolerances tend to be the most common from which people suffer.
How do you know if you suffer from food intolerance? Intolerances often leave sufferers feeling weak and bloated. Frequent diarrhea and stomach cramps are also common symptoms, since the body has a hard time processing a particular food.
“Intolerances can even cause contact rashes, leaving people to think they are really allergic,” cautions Wiens. “But a food allergy is very different.”
Allergies cause swelling. When ingested, the throat and intestine swell. This constriction can be very dangerous.
When dealing with food intolerances, the only solution is to avoid that food. This needs to be a long-term commitment, encourage both Waters and Wiens.
“Sometimes it takes weeks to really get it out of your system, and for the symptoms to stop,” says Waters. “You can’t just avoid the food for a day or two. After a few weeks, you can slowly reintroduce (the food) to see if that is what is affecting you.”
Wiens adds that a short-term hiatus from a particular food may cure the intolerance. Reintroduce the food slowly to gauge how much the body can handle, Wiens cautions.
Gluten intolerance, in particular, can have effects that are more than just symptomatic, causing serious health problems if not detected.
“If you think you are gluten intolerant, you should probably see your doctor,” says Waters.
A gluten intolerance, or celiac disease, is classified as an autoimmune disease. Sufferers react by producing excess antibodies in the small intestines. Those antibodies cause damage to the small intestine and an inability to absorb certain nutrients, depriving the body of vital nourishment.
“(Those with gluten intolerance) haven’t been absorbing the things they need. We need to test vitamin levels and for anemia,” explains Waters. “Plus, (a gluten-free) diet is much more drastic than, say, not drinking milk.”
Waters suggests not removing gluten from the diet before being diagnosed. If gluten is not present in the digestive system, the specialized proteins the blood test looks for will not be present.
While food intolerances don’t seem to be on the rise, peanut allergies certainly are. It’s a fact that more children are diagnosed with a peanut allergy than ever before.
“Nobody really knows why,” says Wiens.
An allergic reaction to peanuts is often more severe, often resulting in anaphylaxis, a life-threatening, whole-body allergic reaction.
“Most accidental anaphylaxis occurs to people with a peanut allergy,” says Wiens.
The good news is that food allergies are often outgrown during early childhood, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. It is estimated that 80 to 90 percent of egg, milk, wheat and soy allergies go away by age 5.
For food allergies, just as with food intolerance, avoidance is the only current treatment.
Research is currently being conducted that investigates the possibility that patients could be desensitized to their allergy. Patients are given an oral immunotherapy. They are fed small, incremental amounts with the idea that their bodies will increasingly react less to the allergen.
“It is exciting that a patient might be able to be treated for their allergy,” says Wiens.
Carolyn Wiess offers a glimpse of what it’s like to live with food intolerance. Wiess discovered her gluten intolerance after the birth of her second child.
“I had digestive problems over the years,” remembers Wiess. “No one knew what was wrong.”
Wiess’ youngest daughter has gluten intolerance. The discovery of that is what led Wiess to realize her own intolerance. After breastfeeding her newborn, Wiess’ daughter would be extremely fussy.
“She would have explosive spit-up,” shares Wiess. “She would go from being very happy to obviously being in pain. It was awful. Since she was exclusively breastfed, we knew it was something I was eating. We started eliminating foods from our diet, and sure enough, she was allergic to wheat.”
The mother had her answer: Avoid gluten. On a daily basis, she says it is not too much of a challenge.
“I am a stay-at-home mom,” explains Wiess, “so it’s easier for me to be careful of what (my daughter and I) come in contact with. I make my own bread, crackers and pasta. There are lots of gluten-free products, but it’s cheaper to make my own.”
Dining out or with friends poses some added challenges.
“Restaurants are becoming more aware,” says Wiess. “But, many don’t realize that you can’t prepare gluten-free food in the same pans as regular food.”
Play dates and birthday parties can pose a particular risk to her youngest daughter, now 2.
“I usually make a special treat to take to birthday parties that is gluten-free,” explains Wiess.
Beyond the obvious flour-based foods, there are a couple of surprising foods that contain gluten: pre-shredded cheese and soy sauce, she cautions.
After removing gluten from her diet for her daughter, Weiss began to feel better, too. Even though it takes time to prepare snacks and food, Wiess finds her new diet freeing.
“It was hard to have fun with my girls,” remembers Wiess. “We couldn’t be out long just in case my stomach would get upset.”
If you think you or someone in your family has a food intolerance or allergy, visit with your doctor about a plan that will work for you.
“You really can feel better,” says Wiess.