Food Allergy? Intolerance? Disease? Sensitivity?

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food allergy
Image By Rebecca Angel

I am intolerant of gluten, probably have celiac disease, don’t have any food allergies, but am sensitive to dairy. What the heck does that all mean? Using myself as an example, I will explain:

My gluten intolerance means my digestive system has a problem with wheat, rye, and barley. If I eat foods that contain these ingredients they cause me severe cramping and pain in my gut. Barley is the worst! Although I had stomach distress in childhood, I was told they were due to psychological problems and sent to a psychologist at age 7. Although I do believe emotions can play a big part in physical issues, I also know my genetics set me up (from both families trees). Then my family moved to Asia for a few years and amazingly all my stomach problems disappeared. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the diet we ate was based on rice, not gluten-filled grains. Back in the states, I don’t remember having many stomach problems until after I had my first child. The doctor was slowly making his way through the exhaustive list of what could be wrong with me, when I came across an article in Prevention magazine about gluten intolerance. I decided it couldn’t hurt to try, and all my symptoms disappeared! Apparently, pregnancy can be a “trigger” for digestive issues (and many other physical problems your genetics were holding onto; waiting to jump out…)

It was five years later that my new doctor told me I might have celiac disease. To verify this, it would require me to go back on gluten for a few weeks so the tests could be valid. I refused to purposely subject my body to pain when my diet was working just fine, so I declined the testing. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that may affect as many as 1 in 150 people in America. When gluten is eaten, the body attacks its own digestive system, specifically the villi of the small intestine. Your villi are what absorb nutrients. What this means is that if you have celiac disease and eat gluten, you will eventually lose your ability to digest nutrients, and then, no matter how healthy you think you are eating, you will be malnourished and get very sick. The symptoms can be wide-ranging because you need nutrients to keep your entire body working. That is why it is hard to diagnose–not everyone has a stomach ache. It is as serious a disease as Lupus, MS, and other autoimmune disorders. Luckily for celiacs, the treatment is completely dietary, and all symptoms can go away if you are careful.

Because the immune system is involved in Celiac disease, it is related to food allergies but not quite the same. An allergy stimulates an over-active immune response. I have never had an allergic response to foods but my daughter’s throat gets itchy if she has pineapple or kiwi. My father’s throat will close up if he has any shellfish. That’s a common symptom and very scary. My mother uncontrollably falls asleep if she has any kind of dairy. That’s not such a common symptom, and it took years for her to figure it out. Allergies generally happen immediately after eating the offensive food, and many allergy sufferers carry an EpiPen. New research shows allergy issues can be shown at birth.

Food sensitivity and food intolerance are often interchanged as words to mean your body has a problem with a certain food or part of a food, and the immune system does not play a role. I say I am sensitive to dairy because I haven’t figured out exactly what it is that bothers me. I know I never liked drinking cow’s milk as a kid. Now I realize I was probably getting stomach aches from it and naturally didn’t want any. I can eat any kind of cheese with no problem except mozzarella. Goat’s milk is fine. And I can have ice cream, as long as it’s an expensive kind. I’m not kidding–give me Ben and Jerry’s or an all-natural gelato and I’m good, but a quick ice cream sundae at my local corner store gives me pain. Most likely an additive put in the cheaper stuff is the culprit?

In the end, does it really matter what everything is called? I think so. When I first went on my gluten-free diet, it was NOT a household phrase. I simply told people I was allergic to wheat and got pitying looks. But it isn’t an allergy. If my gluten issue is an intolerance, I have to be careful, but it’s not life-threatening. I do believe I have celiac disease, which can be life-threatening, and try to avoid gluten as much as possible. Scientists are trying to study all these gluten problems to see what is real and what is hype. My digestive system is sensitive and I’m still trying to figure it all out. Till then, research and expensive ice-cream for me.