Battling Back Food Allergies

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but no matter how skilled your allergist is, she can’t cure your food allergy at the present time. The best we allergists can do at this point is identify the problem foods, instruct you on how best to avoid them, and treat reactions when avoidance maneuvers fail, as they often do. In some cases, you simply outgrow the allergy.

The primary defense against future reactions is to stop eating what makes you sick. Yeah, you just shelled out good money for a book that tells you what you already knew. Avoidance, however, is more complicated and challenging than anyone can summarize in a bit of homespun wisdom.

Effective avoidance requires vigilance and a coordinated effort to prevent any amount of the allergenic food from entering your system through measures, such as:

  • Meticulously reading labels for hidden ingredients: I provide several food allergy field guides later.
  • Refusing foods from unknown or un-trusted sources: Even a wellmeaning friend can offer you what he considers an allergen-free batch of cookies that has enough of the allergen in it (perhaps from a tainted spoon or spatula) to trigger a reaction. If you’re ever unsure about the specific ingredients or cannot confirm the absence of a particular ingredient, don’t take chances with the food.
  • Preparing foods properly to avoid cross-contamination: For example, cross-contamination may occur if you’re allergic to milk and the same knife is used to cut a piece of cheese and then slice the meat for your sandwich.
  • Cleaning eating surfaces thoroughly before sitting down to eat: In a school cafeteria, for example, tables should be thoroughly scrubbed down with a household cleaning solution to remove all remnants of an allergen before an allergic student sits at the table to eat.
  • Avoiding situations in which the allergen becomes airborne in high enough concentrations to trigger a reaction: You may find yourself in this situation if you’re allergic to peanuts and dine out at a restaurant where other patrons are cracking open shelled peanuts or you’re allergic to fish and are seated at a table close to the kitchen where fish is being fried.

When your immune system is genetically wired to overreact to a food allergen, any amount of the allergen can trigger a reaction and potentially increase the risk of more severe reactions in the future.

You can’t pop a pill or take a shot to cure your food allergies, but several medications can help relieve symptoms when avoidance is not 100 percent effective. Consult your allergist and stock your medicine cabinet and your travel bag with medications that can provide symptomatic relief.

Here, I provide a brief overview of medications that can assist in relieving your symptoms:

  • Epinephrine: Giving someone who’s experiencing a severe allergic reaction a shot of epinephrine (adrenaline) is like throwing a drowning person a life preserver. If your doctor believes that you’re at risk for a severe reaction, he can prescribe epinephrine autoinjectors that enable you or someone you’re with to give you an immediate injection.
  • Antihistamines: Benedryl (Diphendydramine) and other antihistamines in the category of H1 blockers, given by mouth or by injection, can help symptoms subside. Liquid forms or fast-dissolve pills may offer faster relief, because your system can absorb them more readily.
  • H2 blockers: Zantac (Ranitidine) and Tagamet (cimetidine), which are commonly used to treat ulcers and acid indigestion are often effective, especially when combined with antihistamines in the H1 class.
  • Inhalant medications: Albuterol and other asthma medications can help if you have difficulty breathing, chest tightness, or coughing.
  • Corticosteroids: Prednisone and other corticosteroids can help prevent a recurrence in the hours following a severe reaction and prevent late reactions, but they don’t work rapidly enough for emergency treatment.

Although some alternative therapies may assist by complementing well established medical treatments, most alternative therapies are useless at best and counterproductive at worst. In addition, they’re often costly, your insurance probably won’t pay for them, and they siphon off the time, energy, and resources you would be better off investing in a proven medical diagnosis and treatments.

My mind is not completely sealed off to the possibility that more effective treatments and perhaps a cure can come from somewhere other than the established medical community. When I pick apart quack tests and treatments, I do it only to show that proponents of these tests and treatments have little, if any, scientific evidence to back up their claims, and I don’t want you spending your time and money chasing after a treatment that’s certain to be ineffective.

If I were to tell you that I could diagnose your food allergy by watching you swing a rubber chicken over your head, you’d probably question my credentials. Yet, people continue to subject themselves to tests that have no scientifically proven data to back them up.

Here are some of the more questionable tests:

  • Cytotoxic testing douses your skin cells (under a microscope) in a solution that contains the allergen to see if your cells break down or change shape in response to the allergen.
  • ELISA/ACT (Enzyme-Linked Immunosorbent Assay) testing consists of watching how your white blood cells (lymphocytes) react to particular allergens. Proponents claim that the test can reveal the root cause of 60 percent of all human illnesses.
  • NAET (Nambudripad’s Allergy Elimination Technique) requires you to hold a food while stretching your arms out akimbo and having the examiner pull down on your arms to test your muscle strength. Supposedly, you’re allergic to a food if the food weakens you, because the food is interfering with your energy pathways. Tests results almost always show the need for acupuncture or acupressure treatments.
  • Immune-complex and IgG tests assess common immune reactions not necessarily related to allergy. IgG tests often identify perfectly harmless foods as allergens, which can lead to poor diet and malnutrition.
  • The pulse test calls for taking your pulse before and after eating a certain food. If your pulse rate increases significantly, supposedly you’re either allergic to the food or have an intolerance to it.

Many alternative medical practitioners want you to believe that your food allergies stem from nothing more than your body having too much or too little of something it needs. They often promise to cure your food allergy and every other illness you have by bringing your system into “proper balance.”

Following are some of the half-baked schools of thought that drive the development of these unproven treatments:

  • Homeopathy: A tiny amount of what ails you can supposedly cure you for good.
  • Supplementarians: Peddling their pet concoctions of vitamins, minerals, and herbs, these folks want you to believe that if your body just had the right chemical balance, you’d never be sick another day in your life.
  • Chelationists: The theory here is that you’ve been poisoned by something in the environment, typically a heavy metal like lead or mercury. Leaching the poisons out of your system, through chelation, supposedly will do the trick.
  • Full-body cleansers: These folks attribute almost every disease to a gummed up colon, liver, kidneys, or gallbladder — nothing a thorough internal scrubbing can’t cure!
  • Leaky gutters: The leaky gutters do have a point. Sometimes your GI tract can let some undigested food particles through its walls (a leaky gut), which may eventually cause a condition called eosinophilic gastrointestinal.
  • Masseuses, chiropractors, and other body manipulators: Although a good massage, a chiropractic adjustment, or yoga may make you feel better all around, none of these treatments or practices can cure food allergies.

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NC CAM) Web site at provides some excellent information on alternative tests and therapies.

It’s not comprehensive (for example, when I searched the site, I found nothing on NAET or ELISA/ACT), but the site does provide some reliable details about specific herbs, supplements, and other alternative and complementary treatments. I recommend that you visit the site before trying any potentially dangerous or utterly useless treatment.

Although the medical community has no cure for food allergy, researchers are working on it. As I reveal later, we’re advancing quickly, and research is accelerating at breakneck speed. I predict that within 20 years, we’ll see a cure for food allergy. The following list introduces some of the most promising results of current research:

  • Immunotherapy: Immunotherapy attempts to desensitize the immune system to a particular allergen over time by subjecting it to increasing doses of the allergen.
  • Ancient Chinese herbal remedy: An ancient Chinese herbal formula (FAHF-1) has proven effective in virtually curing peanut allergy in mice. Another variant of this herbal brew, fondly referred to as FAHF-2 has proven equally effective in treating mice.
  • Anti-IgE antibody therapy: Because IgE antibodies are the instigators of most food allergy reactions, scientists are looking for ways to incapacitate these antibodies. Anti-IgE antibody therapy consists of stimulating the body’s production of IgG antibodies that bind with the IgE antibodies. IgG renders the IgE powerless and unable to trigger the massive release of histamines, which cause most symptoms.
  • Genetically engineered immunization shots: Scientists are working on ways to re-train the immune system to function properly by ramping up its response to disease-causing organisms and cranking down its response to harmless substances. Genetically engineered amino acids can often tweak the operation of the immune system to mute its reaction to food allergens.
  • Probiotics: Beneficial bacteria, such as those found in yogurt, may optimize the functioning of the immune system, improving its ability to defend the body against harmful bacteria and viruses while decreasing its tendency to overreact to food allergens.

Food allergies limit more than your menu selections. They can place some restaurants off limits, isolate your allergic child in the cafeteria, make you more reluctant to visit family and friends for dinner, and complicate your life with a host of precautionary measures and sometimes paralyzing fear.

I reveal common-sense precautions that, once they become habit, enable you to live a full, enjoyable life without becoming paralyzed by undo fears. I equip you with everything you need to decipher labels, discover tasty alternatives for the foods you love, and even whip up a few delicious allergen-free meals and desserts in your own kitchen.

Avoiding the foods you’re allergic to, however, is rarely 100 percent effective in preventing reactions. The trick to dealing with the possibility of a reaction is to be prepared 100 percent of the time. By having the medications you need to immediately respond in the event of an emergency, you can decrease the fear factor by a factor of ten and establish a more relaxed form of vigilance.

An allergic reaction can be a terrifying experience, but by mastering a few allergen-avoidance techniques and remaining well-prepared to respond immediately in the event of a reaction, you can limit the risk and ease your mind.

Food Allergy Myths

Before you move on to the next article, I’d like to take the opportunity to dispel some of the most common myths about food allergies. By clearing any cloud of misinformation from your brain, I can free up some space for the more accurate and useful information I present later. The following list reveals the most common and tenacious myths:

  • It’s nothing more than a stomachache. Maybe you’re right. Maybe you have nothing more than a stomachache, but you should still have it checked out, especially if your stomach aches soon after you eat a specific food. Without an accurate diagnosis, you’re at a higher risk of experiencing a more severe reaction later and being unprepared to deal with it, if, in fact, it turns out to be allergy related.
  • A little taste can’t hurt. To your immune system, even a tiny amount of a problem food is enough to trigger an all-out attack. People with severe allergies can have life-threatening reactions when the same spatula used to serve a cookie containing the allergen is used to serve up their supposedly allergen-free cookie.
  • A tiny bit may actually help. Although some food allergy treatments call for exposing the immune system to increasing amounts of a known allergen to desensitize the immune system, trying to do this on your own is very dangerous.
  • Food allergies make me hyper. Food allergies are often blamed for psychiatric disorders, such as ADHD (Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder). Although food may play a role in the severity of the symptoms, food allergies are not the root cause or even a strong contributor. You’re better off seeing a psychiatrist and therapist to receive a proper diagnosis and treatment.
  • Epinephrine is a dangerous drug. Some doctors refuse to prescribe epinephrine, particularly for children, because they think it’s a dangerous drug. The fact is that epinephrine is a very safe drug, and for a huge majority of food allergy sufferers, the benefits far outweigh the risks.
  • You’re allergic to any food that causes problems. Foods can cause problems for all sorts of reasons, including other ingredients in the food, toxins, high concentrations of histamine, bacteria, and viruses. Don’t assume that just because a particular food gives you the collywobbles that you’re allergic to that food.
  • The peanut allergy is the most common. Peanut may very well be the most common allergy in some populations, but the prevalence of a particular food allergy varies according to age and culture. Kids are more likely to be allergic to peanuts, milk, and eggs, for example, while adults are more prone to seafood allergies. People of Jewish decent have a higher prevalence of allergy to sesame. In Japan and other countries in which fish is a staple, fish allergy is more common.
  • If you weren’t allergic to it before, you can’t be allergic to it now. As explained earlier, the onset of a food allergy is brought on by a genetic susceptibility and exposure to the problem food. The more exposure to the problem food, the higher the risk of developing an allergy to it if you’re susceptible. However, some food allergies, including milk and egg allergies, tend to develop earlier in life, whereas seafood allergies tend to appear later in life.
  • Bona fide food allergies are rare. Approximately 7.5 percent of the population of the United States has a bona fide food allergy, and the incidents of food allergies seems to be on the rise.
  • I’m allergic to food additives. Food additives can trigger reactions, even severe reactions, but these are not allergic in nature. Reactions to food additives are chemical reactions that produce symptoms very similar and perhaps even identical to those of allergic reactions.