an excerpt from The Unhealthy Truth: How Our Food Is Making Us Sick by Robyn O’Brien
Robyn O’Brien was not someone who gave much thought to misguided government agencies and chemicals in our food — until the day her youngest daughter had a violent allergic reaction to eggs, and her world changed. O’Brien’s book The Unhealthy Truth: How Our Food Is Making Us Sick — And What We can Do About It is both a story of how one brave woman chose to take on the system and the call to action that shows how each of us can do our part to keep our own families safe.
Defining food allergies
An allergy is basically an overreaction by your immune system to a protein that it perceives as a threat — for example, the proteins in particular types of food, the dust mite protein, or pollen. For people without allergies, these proteins are harmless. But if you’ve got an allergy, your immune system sees these proteins as dangerous invaders.
To drive the invader out, your immune system mobilizes all its resources: mucus, to flush out the intruder; vomiting, to force it out; diarrhea, to expel it quickly. Such conditions may make you feel sick, but they’re actually evidence of your body’s attempts to get well.
A key aspect of the immune response is known as inflammation, characterized by one of more of four classic symptoms: redness, heat, swelling, and pain. Inflammation doesn’t occur only in allergic reactions; it flares up whenever your body feels threatened, in response to a bruise, cut, bacteria or virus as well as to otherwise harmless pollen, dust, or food. Scientists now believe that much of our immune system is found in our digestive tracts, where many of these inflammatory reactions occur in the form of stomachaches, cramping, nausea, bloating, and vomiting.
Inflamed immune system
Ironically, the immune system’s inflammatory reaction — meant to heal and protect the body — often causes more problems than the initial “invader.” The eggs my daughter tasted that fateful January morning were dangers to her not because they were intrinsically toxic but because of the inflammatory way her immune system responded: with redness, swelling, hives, and fever. And if the swelling had included not only her face but her respiratory system, her allergic response might have caused her throat to swell, threatening her ability to breathe and perhaps even killing her.
When I first read that information, I had to pause and take a breath. How am I supposed to protect my daughter from her own body?
Put the body’s immune system up against a real killer, like cancer or a deadly virus, and you’ve got a body ready to fight its way back to health. But set it against a misunderstood invader — such as the protein from a peanut or an egg—and you can imagine the traffic accidents, broken windows, and wounded bystanders left in its wake. That’s the irony of an allergic reaction: the body’s attempt to protect itself can actually cause severe harm.
Depending on what is causing the inflammatory reaction, symptoms may also combine for a kind of flu-like effect, including fever, chills, fatigue, loss of energy, headache, loss of appetite, muscle and joint stiffness.
Allergy or sensitivity?
If you’re already familiar with food allergies, you’ll realize that many of the reactions I just listed are not to be found on the traditional list of food allergy symptoms. So here’s where things get slippery. Although some of these symptoms are associated with food allergies, they’re also associated with another type of food-based reaction most commonly known as food sensitivity.
Food sensitivity is another type of reaction that draws on a related but slightly different aspect of the immune system than food allergies do. Food sensitivities also product slightly different symptoms, though there is also some overlap (see chart below). Many doctors insist on an ironclad distinction between “food allergies” and “food sensitivity.” But many other physicians and scientists, especially those more recently educated in the importance of diet and nutrition, see a significant link between the two conditions. Still other physicians refer to “immediate” and “delayed” food allergies.
Even though doctors don’t always agree on how to classify these two types of reactions, a growing number see the two responses as aspects of the same problem. In both cases, the immune system is overreacting to an apparently harmless substance.
Common symptoms of food allergy: Immediate reactions
- rash or hives
- stomach pain
- itchy skin
- shortness of breath
- chest pain
- swelling of the airways to the lungs
Common symptoms of food sensitivity: Delayed reactions
- gastrointestinal problems, including bloating and gas
- itchy skin and skin rashes like eczema
- brain fog
- muscle or joint aches
- sleeplessness and sleep disorders
- chronic rhinitis (runny nose), congestion, and postnasal drip