Often, when people experience an unpleasant reaction to something they’ve eaten, they assume they have food allergies. Although approximately 40 percent of Americans believe they have food allergies, only about 1 to 3 percent of Americans actually suffer from food allergies. What many believe is an allergy may simply be a food intolerance. Fortunately, supplemental enzymes can help both conditions.
A food allergy is an abnormal immune system response to a food or food component. Normally, the immune system’s job is to recognize and expel foreign bodies such as viruses, bacteria, fungi and parasites. In an allergic reaction to a food, however, the immune system mistakenly recognizes normally harmless substances as foreign invaders. As a result, the immune system produces an antibody called IgE (immunoglobulin E, nicknamed the “allergy antibody”), which sets off a chain of events to fight the allergen. This causes symptoms that are collectively called an allergic reaction.
True food allergies can cause symptoms ranging from gastrointestinal discomfort (including diarrhea, stomach upset, indigestion, bloating, gas, nausea, vomiting, and cramps), skin rashes, and tingling in the mouth, to a devastating reaction marked by difficulty breathing and even death. In fact, nearly 125 people die every year from an allergic reaction to a particular food.
Only a handful of foods that produce allergies are responsible for the majority of all allergic reactions. Usually, the protein component of a particular food triggers an allergic reaction. Foods responsible for the majority of all allergic reactions include: milk, wheat, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, soy, fish and shellfish. Fruits such as strawberries and kiwis are also frequently implicated.
Although the immune system is involved in allergic reactions to food, it is not responsible for the symptoms of food intolerance, although the symptoms may be similar. A food intolerance usually occurs because the body lacks the enzyme necessary to digest a specific food.
How to tell the difference between a food allergy and food intolerance
Because the symptoms of a food allergy and a food intolerance are often similar, it is difficult to determine the cause of particular food reaction. Your physician, or other licensed health care practitioner, however, can help diagnose a food allergy with tests. If you fail all the allergy tests, than a food intolerance is probably to blame.
Your practitioner will ask for a complete history regarding your reactions to various foods. S/he may then conduct tests including skin pricking. In this test, the patient’s skin is scratched or punctured with a diluted extract of the suspected food and a reaction indicates an allergy.
Blood tests such as a radioallergosorbent (RAST) test can measure specific antibodies. The double-blind placebo-controlled food challenge test is also used to test a person’s reaction to a particular food. This test involves giving the patient a capsule containing either a sample of the allergen or a placebo. A double-blind test keeps the patient’s and the doctor’s expectations from affecting the test results. Unfortunately, this test will only confirm that the patient reacts to a particular food, but won’t differentiate between a food allergy and a food intolerance.
Whatever the cause of your food reaction, enzymes can help. Enzyme therapy is especially effective at fighting allergies because enzymes can break down protein allergens and work to block the process that causes an allergic reaction. Individuals with low pancreatic enzyme output have an increased chance of suffering from food allergies. Enzyme supplements can help augment the body’s own pancreatic enzymes. Therefore, the use of pancreatic enzymes has been suggested in the treatment of food allergies.
One theory states that allergies are triggered by partially undigested protein and that proteolytic enzymes decrease allergic symptoms. Research tends to support this theory. So, supplementing with enzymes can help prevent allergies.
Enzymes also stimulate immune activity and bolster immune system function by promoting growth of healthy intestinal flora. Systemic enzyme therapy is used to decrease inflammation, to improve circulation, to break down and transport nutrients throughout the body, and to remove waste products from the body. For food allergies, you should consider taking a proteolytic enzyme (such as pancreatin) 1-to-1/2-hour before or after a meal.
A note of caution: although enzymes can help allergies, individuals suffering from severe food allergies should strictly avoid any food to which they know they are allergic. To do otherwise may be life threatening.
In the case of food intolerance, adverse reactions to foods can often be eliminated when the proper enzyme is taken with the offending food. Those who have problems digesting proteins should take a protease (proteolytic) enzyme; for carbohydrates, take an amylase (amyiolytic) enzyme; for fats, take a lipase (lipolytic) enzyme. Taking lactase tablets when consuming dairy products will help a lactose intolerant person properly digest lactose, while taking alpha-galactosidase will help someone who has trouble eating beans and other vegetables.
If you can’t determine exactly what food component causes your symptoms, try taking an enzyme combination that contains protease, amylase, and lipase enzymes. Take them 30 minutes before a meal, during meals or just after, depending on what works for you in digesting food and reducing symptoms.
An unpleasant reaction to a food may not always be a sign of a food allergy, it could indicate a food intolerance. Fortunately, enzyme therapy can help to overcome both of these by enhancing immune function and improving digestion.