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Food Allergies, Sensitivities and Intolerances: Protein

Food allergies are the best-known negative reaction to food proteins. In classic food allergies, a protein in certain foods (eg. peanuts, shellfish or egg whites) interacts with an antibody, IgE. Once that reaction occurs, our immune system goes into high gear releasing histamine. Histamine causes an immediate response, and can trigger everything from a scratchy throat and hives to life-threatening swelling of the throat and heart. Because of the rapid and potentially severe response, people with food allergies are usually very aware of them. Repeated exposures to an allergen can also trigger stronger and stronger reactions, which is why it is generally recommended that people with allergies avoid exposure to the food as much as possible.

In food sensitivities, a different antibody, IgG, is involved. IgG activates a much larger and more sophisticated portion of our immune system, when compared to IgE, which causes a greater variety of symptoms, over a longer period of time. Most people with a food sensitivity have some type of digestive complaint, but not always. The classic picture of Irritable Bowel Syndrome – gas, bloating, diarrhea and constipation – can frequently be attributed to an underlying IgG reaction. Food sensitivities can also play a role in major digestive diseases, such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. Because of the overall immune activation that happens in food sensitivities, body wide symptoms are also fairly common. Joint pains, difficulty breathing with exertion, and even migraines can all be associated with food sensitivities.

Unlike food allergies, symptoms of food sensitivities typically develop a few days after the exposure. The most common triggers (ie. milk, wheat, corn, soy and eggs) are also common in most diets. Together these facts make tracing food sensitivities more difficult. The two most effective methods for determining a food sensitivity are IgG testing, a blood test, and an elimination or hypoallergenic diet. After a period of avoidance, most people can consume the foods they are sensitive to on a limited basis.

Gluten, a protein in wheat, spelt, rye and some oats, is the culprit behind one of the most serious reactions people can have to protiens, celiac disease. In celiac disease, the antibodies that form in response to gluten also react to lining of the digestive tract. For people with celiac, an exposure to gluten triggers the immune system to attack their digestive tract, which leads to a host of severe digestive complaints. Celiac disease, can be screened for using a blood test for the specific anti-bodies, although a definitive diagnosis involves taking a piece of the small intestine and looking at it under the microscope for specific changes. The treatment for celiac disease is a life-long avoidance of gluten and all gluten containing foods.

The final way the proteins in our food can negatively effects our health is through our nervous system. Some proteins in foods are able to directly affect our nerves. Casein, a protein found in milk, and gluten are both classic examples. These proteins bind onto our endorphin receptors. For most people, eating the protein causes a slight sense of well-being and relaxation. For sensitive individuals, they cause constipation, irritability, mood swings and difficulty concentrating.

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