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Nothing to sneeze at

Food allergies are the real deal - or just a tolerance issue

by Robrt L. Pela

David Markham was one of those kids who ate paste in kindergarten. He’d sneak into the supply cupboard when his teacher wasn’t looking and wolf down a handful of the stuff, which he says tasted sort of minty and sweet at the same time. David continued this habit until one day in the third grade, when he swallowed too much of his favorite adhesive and became violently ill.

Until early last year, David’s over-indulgence in epoxy was his last averse reaction to a meal. “Then one day I found myself dialing 911 after lunch. My face was swollen up and I couldn’t breathe, and I didn’t know why.” It turned out that David, who’d been lunching on crab claws for years, had developed an allergy to shellfish and could no longer eat them without blowing up like a balloon.

“I’d eaten a crayfish and 20 minutes later I was covered in hives and sick to my stomach,” he says. “I’d been eating lobster and crabs my whole life, and then one day I was on my way to the emergency room because I’d just had lunch at a seafood restaurant.”

There are some simple, and surprising, reasons why many of our favorite foods are less friendly to our systems than others, and why other foods we love can suddenly turn on us after years of our doting affection. And while it’s almost inevitable that most of us will develop allergies and unpleasant responses to certain foods as we grow older, it’s always possible to discover and manage these intolerances. Now’s a great time to start: May is National Food Allergy Awareness month.

“As we become older, our bodies become less able to process certain kinds of foods as effectively as they once did,” according to Morton Bogdonoff, M.D., the professor of medicine at New York’s Cornell Medical Center. “One of the things that happens is we digest our food more slowly as we age, and if there is some element in that food that our body doesn’t respond well to, it tends to stay in our systems longer.” The longer that food remains in our system, Bogdonoff says, the greater the chance our organs have to respond negatively to antigens in the food that we may be allergic to.

A queasy stomach or burning throat is a message worth noting, according to Bogdonoff. “The first time your body rejects a food won’t be all that bad,” he says, “but each time you eat that food, your body will manufacture more antibodies against it. The more you do it, the more antibodies you’ll manufacture and the worse your reaction becomes each time.”

So what causes these reactions? Why did David’s face swell up when he ate crustaceans? It’s all about histamines, Bogdonoff says, chemicals released during an allergic reaction and cause vasodilation or swelling. “That’s why you get that flushed feeling,” he says. “Your body is going after something that it perceives as ‘other,’ and the chemicals it is secreting cause an unpleasant reaction, like hives or swelling or itching.”

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This Article appears on the May 2011 issue of LPM under Health

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