Food Sensitivities for Women

Over the past five years, I have seen an increasing number of women who complain of food sensitivities. While traditional allergy testing may turn up nothing, these women often complain of bloating, gas and abdominal distention after eating certain foods. Other women with specific health issues find that they are unable to properly digest foods that once posed no problem.

True food allergies involve your body eliciting an immune response to a food. Food allergies are usually due to the protein component of the offending food. For some reason, some of the food protein is absorbed from the intestine intact instead of being digested as most proteins are. Once the intact protein is in the bloodstream, it is recognized as a foreign protein to the body. Your body’s immune system produces antibodies to halt the “invasion.” As your immune system attempts to fight off the problem food, symptoms appear throughout the body. The most common symptoms can include swelling of the lips; stomach cramps, vomiting, diarrhea; hives, rashes or eczema; and/or wheezing or breathing problems.

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True food allergies are uncommon but they can involve any food. Common foods that cause allergic reactions include eggs, shellfish, fish, wheat, nuts, dairy and soybeans. Food allergy symptoms vary from person to person. Symptoms can begin within minutes or a few hours after eating the offending food.

Most allergic reactions to food are relatively mild. However, a small percentage of allergic individuals have severe, life-threatening reactions called anaphylaxis. Ana- phylaxis occurs when an offending food overwhelms the individual, causing several different parts of the body to experience reactions at the same time—hives, swelling of the throat and difficulty breathing. If not treated immediately (by an injection of adrenaline), this severe form of food allergy can be fatal.

If you suspect that you have a food allergy, speak to your doctor about allergy testing. Several types of tests are available, including skin-prick testing and blood testing. The elimination diet I discuss below can also help you to determine which foods you may be allergic to.

Not all unpleasant reactions to foods are caused by an allergy. A food intolerance is much more common than a food allergy. “Food intolerance” is the term used to describe a druglike reaction to a food component. A reaction to a food can be caused by a number of chemicals, which may be present in food as natural or added components. Food chemicals that have been implicated in these types of adverse reactions include naturally occurring salicylates, amines and benzoates. Other chemicals include a number of food additives used in the processing and preservation of foods. Compounds most frequently tied to adverse reactions are yellow dye number 5, monosodium glutamate (MSG), and sulfites.

Another cause of food intolerance is a lactase deficiency. Lactase is an enzyme found in the lining of the gut. This enzyme breaks down lactose, the natural sugar found in milk. If a person does not have enough lactase in his or her intestine, the body cannot properly digest lactose. Instead, the lactose remains undigested in the gut, pulling water into the intestine, which can lead to diarrhea. Bacteria then ferment the lactose causing bloating, gas and pain.

Sometimes natural substances that occur in foods can cause a reaction similar to an allergic reaction. For instance, histamine can reach high levels in cheese, some wines and in certain kinds of fish, particularly tuna and mackerel. Eating one of these foods can lead to a reaction called histamine toxicity in susceptible individuals.

Some of the symptoms caused by a food intolerance can be very similar to those caused by a food allergy, so it may be difficult to tell if you have an allergy or an intolerance. One way to tell is by your symptoms. Food intolerances often cause more general symptoms like drowsiness, fatigue, irritability, headache and muscle aches and pains.

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