A Word About Testing

Let me save you a lot of time. If you start researching, you’ll find opinions on all sides about ELISA (enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay), a blood-draw test for inflammation and response from three different antibodies IgG, IgE and IgA for up to 160 foods and herbs and spices); finger-prick enzyme tests; and smaller panels of antibody tests (like the one Pia originally received)—all approaches with both detractors and champions—and other even more controversial forms of testing such as muscle testing and hair analysis and on into multiple woo-woo theories and products. Differences between and definitions of allergies, sensitivities, intolerances, and inflammation are in flux and sometimes hotly debated. The Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE) website is a good place to get an overview, but much is still unknown. The one thing that everyone seems to agree on at this point is this: If you have a life-threatening allergy to, say, peanuts or shellfish or strawberries, you already know to avoid those foods at all cost. For those with more subtle or more chronic reactions, the avoid-and-reintroduce approach is inexpensive and pretty reliable: take suspect foods out of your diet for a while, and then add them back in one at time and see what happens. For me, the ELISA was helpful because it motivated me to get serious about eliminating suspect foods and gave me a starting point. (And I should note that the test was expensive, and insurance only paid for my girls’ testing, not mine.) My real conviction came from the drastic improvements I saw as the result of my own experimentation and tracking.

Allergies vs. Sensitivities: What we learned.

For simplicity and ease, I usually use the term “allergies” when I talk about reactions to foods. It’s good shorthand that everyone seems to understand. That said, there are important distinctions that can be made between different kinds of food reactions.

I learned that my girls and I had typical allergic reactions to many foods. A true “food allergy” causes an immune system or histamine reaction within two hours of eating the offending food. When the food enters the body, the immune system identifies the food as a harmful substance. It then produces antibodies to fight off the substance. This process begins in a chemical reaction that leads to common food-allergy symptoms as the result of increased histamine levels in the body. Histamine reactions cause inflammation in tissue where food-allergy symptoms typically appear, such as the sinuses, stomach, and lungs. Reactions encompass such symptoms as a tingling or itching mouth; swelling of the lips, tongue, throat, or face; and hives, wheezing, or difficulty breathing. Anaphylaxis, or a severe inability to breathe, is the most extreme of these reactions, and it can result in death.

We learned that, in addition to hereditary factors, food allergies—which cause immune-system histamine responses and inflammatory responses—can be triggered by chronic overexposure, and that with so many common allergens like wheat, soy, corn and cane sugar being used as fillers in processed foods, even people who avoid fast food and “junk” can be getting ongoing overexposure to them.

A food intolerance or sensitivity, which is thought not to involve an immune response, will not have an immediate or histamine reaction but will have a delayed reaction after ingesting them that will come on anywhere from a few hours to a couple of days later and is not immediately life threatening. The symptoms can vary widely, and typically include inflammatory responses, joint pain, nausea or vomiting, gas, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, gut tenderness, heartburn, headaches, mood swings, or skin issues. While those are the “typical” reactions, the secondary effects of food intolerances appear to be even more far-reaching. For example, my dentist noticed a remarkable difference in the health of my teeth and gums within eight weeks of my new eating style, and the symptoms of my diagnosed ADD—restlessness, terrible difficulty with focusing, and anxiety—are pretty much gone. I have a genetic predisposition to rheumatoid arthritis on both my maternal and paternal sides (my mom suffers from it) and I started to develop symptoms in my twenties. Today, unless I have a gluten slip, these symptoms seem to be at bay.

Celiac disease is something different still, a hereditary autoimmune disorder so severe that even the consumption of microscopic amounts of gluten can cause damage to the small intestines. Contrary to popular belief, though, celiac symptoms are not necessarily more pronounced than those associated with gluten intolerance. In fact 50 percent of people with celiac have no digestive symptoms at all. Most people simply don’t associate their non-digestive symptoms with the celiac diagnosis until those symptoms go away after eliminating gluten. It is estimated that one in one hundred people suffer from celiac (although I know ten personally, so I suspect that estimate is low), with only about one-third of them being diagnosed. It is also important to note that celiac disease runs in families, with first- and second-degree relatives being at an increased risk for the disease.

THIS IS VERY IMPORTANT! If you suspect that you may have celiac disease or if you have any relatives with celiac disease, get tested BEFORE you start eating this way. If you have been off gluten for even a few weeks, you cannot get an accurate celiac reading. Learn from our mistakes—we went about this in the wrong order, and we had to go through genetic testing to get our results, Pia was positive and Coco and I are not.