Man has always had a somewhat uneasy relationship with food, which is very understandable from an historical perspective because our diet once consisted of anything we could kill with a rock or simply choke down.
Food is necessary for our very existence, but all is not well in the corn field. Food is sometimes contaminated with bacteria or the toxins produced by bacteria. Food poisoning can cause a pretty miserable day of nausea, vomiting and diarrhea – your basic just-shoot-me experience.
Food can also make you fat, but that’s another story for another day. Right now we want to focus on food and how it relates to your immune system.
The first thing to know is your gut is an immune organ. That may seem kind of surprising, but if you open an appendix, it’s full of immune cells.
Your intestines do more than simply absorb food. They closely monitor the contents for signs of trouble, actively secrete hormones, and actively absorb some nutrients over other ones.
Carbohydrates and fats tend to be quickly absorbed as fuel for the furnace. Proteins are given a little more respect and persist in the gut longer that other food. This gives the immune system a chance to occasionally make a mistake and mislabel a protein as a threat.
Food allergy is literally having an allergic reaction to something you ate. It is due to the release of histamines, just like hay fever. Many food allergy reactions are not too exciting – hives for instance. Often a little Benadryl or other antihistamines will take care of the problem.
Asthma can be another manifestation of food allergies. If this occurs to someone under asthma care, they usually have an inhaler handy. If not, a trip to the closest medical provider is in order.
Food allergies frequently cause local trouble (in the gut). Common reactions are colicky abdominal pain, flatulence and diarrhea.
Anaphylaxis, a severe, whole-body allergic reaction to a chemical that has become an allergen, is the big worry in food allergies. That is why peanuts are considered lethal weapons in seven states.
Because of food allergies, anaphylaxis typically occurs two hours after eating the offending tidbit. Symptoms vary, but often there is a rash, swelling of the face and throat, low blood pressure, and difficulty breathing.
This is a true medical emergency because both air going in and out, and blood going round and round, are critical to making the body function normally. The immediate need is an adrenaline (epinephrine) injection. If an EpiPen is close by, you should use it as soon as someone has called 9-1-1.
Most people with severe food allergies and a history of anaphylaxis, know about it, and are armed with an EpiPen. If you find yourself with rapidly escalating symptoms after a meal, some instant medical care is needed.
Fortunately, very few of us have to worry about anaphylaxis. However, food allergies of the mild persuasion are common and often unrecognized. If they become persistent, it’s a good idea to consult a doctor.
Donald Bucklin, MD (Dr. B) is a Regional Medical Director for U.S. HealthWorks and has been practicing clinical occupational medicine for more than 25 years. Dr. B. works in our Scottsdale, Arizona clinic.
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