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A few years ago, I had a patient come to my clinic who said she was experiencing some rather serious headaches. We were able to determine that they weren’t migraines, but I was still concerned for her.
At my integrative health center, one of the things we do for almost all new patients is a thorough food sensitivity screening. Sure enough, one of the foods she loved the most, celery, which for most people should be a nourishing and healthful snack, was the underlying culprit.
She had a sub-clinical food allergy that was simply never discovered before.
Specific food sensitivities can induce hidden inflammation in the gut, causing pain, bloating and gas. Symptoms can also include joint pain, chronic sinus stuffiness, or postnasal drip, among others.
However, discovering a food allergy, or even just a sensitivity, is just the first step. At my clinic, I give people a thorough protocol for living with and surviving even the most serious food allergies.
Communication is key
If you have food allergies, then you already know you need to mention it because mistakes can range from uncomfortable to life-threatening. For those who are most at risk, one wrong bite or sip can mean a trip to the emergency room – or worse.
So communication is one of the most important tools you have.
Normally, people with food sensitivities appear perfectly healthy, not on the verge of collapse from a speck of peanut butter, for example. That’s why it takes direct communication and vigilant teamwork to manage any significant food allergies.
If you or your family suffers from dangerous or difficult food sensitivities, you’re not alone – in fact, an increasing number of people experience substantial reactions to foods such as peanuts, shellfish, gluten and much more.
Public awareness of this issue is growing as well – you don’t have to isolate yourself in a secret bubble of stigma, afraid of burdening others with your strict dietary needs. The truth is, most people want to lend a helping hand – they just need to know how.
Here’s an example: A patient of mine with a small child had an excellent experience during Back-to-School Week.
It’s the day before kindergarten, and parents have gathered to meet the teacher. During the assembly, the instructor gives the spotlight to one of the mothers for a brief “show and tell.” The mom describes her daughter’s life-threatening peanut allergy.
Even a small amount of peanut butter can cause a reaction so severe that her child stops breathing.
The teacher holds up the EpiPen she will keep on hand to deliver life-saving medication if needed. The mother wraps up by passing around a jar of sunflower seed butter, asking the other parents to substitute it for regular peanut butter in their kids’ lunches. With all the touching and sharing in kindergarten, she worries about incidental contact.
They had a very supportive discussion, where other parents felt empowered to help the girl stay safe.
Vigilance at home
If you are dealing with a food allergy, information is another of your best friends. At the grocery store, don’t be afraid to scrutinize every label, should you have to eat packaged or processed food.
Remember, it’s not always enough for the product to be allergen-free. Try to find out if it comes from a manufacturing facility that does not handle that allergen at all. If there’s any question, contact the company directly.
Several websites like wafeast.org and allerbling.com can help. The one I like is The University of Nebraska’s Food Allergy research and Resource Program, https://farrp.unl.edu/FoodLabeling.
This level of vigilance and planning extends to numerous other areas of life. While the kitchen is the obvious starting point, efforts don’t end there. Countless household and personal care products also contain “hidden allergens.” Review ingredients listed in hand lotions, toothpaste, makeup and hair products, to name just a few.
Safe at school
A proactive anti-allergy plan becomes much more complicated outside the home, particularly at school. Kids share lunches. French fries are cooked in the same vats as fish sticks. Treats are brought in for birthdays. The first step is for parents to work out a plan with the school, like what the mother did for her daughter with a peanut allergy. Teachers and administrators must know what foods should be avoided and what actions to take if they’re not. An older child with allergies should be an active player in this team effort.
Office workers face similar issues. Cubicles are close together. Co-workers share a common refrigerator. There’s pressure to go out for company lunches.
Again, open communication and a well-thought plan can pave the way. Tell your boss and colleagues about your allergies and what a reaction looks like. Once they understand how important the issue is, they will respect your needs and can support your efforts.
Restaurants and travel
Eating out can present the most risk. While the entrée you want may not contain any allergens, it could be prepared side-by-side with one that does. Check online beforehand if possible. Some restaurants, particularly big chains, provide allergy information. Partner with the restaurant. Talk to the manager when you come in, or over the phone beforehand. Recruit the waiter. They know how the system works and can steer you in a safe direction.
Some strategies for air travel: Research the airline’s approach to allergies, but more importantly, bring your own food. Tell gate agents and flight attendants about your condition – doctors notes are helpful.
As mentioned, serious food allergies are unfortunately becoming more prevalent — but on the flip side, that means more options, better support and safer food choices are on the rise for you and your family.
One thing to remember is that cooking can destroy a number of the allergens in fruits and vegetables. Not many people cook fruit, but pasteurized fruit juice might not cause a reaction even if you have a sensitivity to citrus, for example.
Also, some fruits and vegetables like tomatoes have an increase in allergens as they ripen and can cause a greater reaction.
For my patient, I advised her to stay away from celery since it’s one of the vegetables where the allergens aren’t affected by cooking.