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Allergies vs Intolerance: What happened when I got tested

Research shows there’s a growing number of people experiencing food allergies and intolerances (self-diagnosed or otherwise). Therefore it is hardly surprising that Google searches for food allergies and intolerance testing labs are up 750% in the UK alone — increasing year-on-year.

Allergy and intolerance testing

I’ve spent much of my adult life musing over my own possible food allergies and intolerances. I show various symptoms of allergies: I’m fine with milk, but heat it up for a latte or a bowl of porridge and I’ll soon be running to the toilet. Soy alternatives make my tummy hurt and too much chocolate will sometimes give me hives. Noticing all of this before the spike of available vegan milk, I trained myself to like black coffee. My chocolate induced hives, however, I chose to live with.

My curiosity sent me to nutrition consultant Sana Khan, who is the founder of medical and aesthetic clinic Avicenna Wellbeing in London. I underwent some thorough blood testing in her hands.

What is an allergy?

It is when the body has a particular reaction to a food or substance, which is referred to as an allergen. The most common food allergies are nuts, shellfish, egg and cows milk. Other common allergies include pollen (hayfever), dust mites, insect bites or stings, ibuprofen, antibiotics, latex and mould.

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What causes allergies?

Sometimes the body’s immune system reacts to something as if its harmful. It isn’t known why this happens, but it if someone has an allergy it is common for other people in their family to have the same, or similar, allergies.

How do allergies develop?

It isn’t known. But every year the number of people with allergies increases — many believe it is because we are living in a cleaner environment with less exposure to germs, causing our immune systems to overreact despite something being harmless.

Food allergy symptoms

Allergic reactions usually occur within minutes of exposure to the cause, but in some cases it ca take a few hours. Most of the time symptoms are mild — anaphylactic shock (when you can’t breathe, feel faint, or have a fast heartbeat) isn’t common. Common food allergy symptoms include hives (a raised, sometimes red, itchy rash), swelling of facial features or neck, tummy pain, sickness, or dry, cracked skin.

How to find out what you’re allergic to

Keeping a diary to track what you eat, and your reactions can help reveal what is causing an allergic reaction. You could also try the ‘elimination diet’. This is when you avoid a certain food to see if symptoms improve and then reintroduce it to your diet after a few weeks to see if you react. This can be a long process as you may not choose the correct food straight away. The NHS does not recommend using home allergy testing kits as these are a lower standard than those provided by the NHS or private clinics and considered to be unreliable.

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What is food intolerance and how it is different to an allergy?

Intolerances relate only to foods, not other substances in our environment. While allergies are an immune response, intolerances have nothing to do with our immune systems but happen when the body struggles to digest something.

Food intolerance symptoms

Common symptoms of food intolerance include bloating, stomach pain, diarrhoea and sometimes even skin rashes and itching. Unlike a food allergy, symptoms of an intolerance usually happen gradually, a few hours after ingesting the food.

What causes food intolerances?

Just like allergies, it isn’t known what causes intolerance — and the number of people reporting to have it are increasing each year. However, a lot of these people will be assuming they have an intolerance when they don’t. Some will actually have irritable bowel syndrome, coeliac disease or be reacting to stress and anxiety.

My experience of food allergy vs food intolerance testing

To check for allergies, Sana at Avicenna Wellbeing looked at the number of Immunoglobulin E (IgE) in my blood. These are antibodies produced in reaction to an allergy. If these levels had been high, I’d have been asked to keep a longer food diary and return for more tests at a later date. But I am currently not ingesting anything that’s causing problems.  (I might be allergic to something that isn’t currently in my diet).

Despite my intrigue, Sana didn’t test for intolerances — she saw no reason to after looking at the results from my blood. You see, a big issue with intolerance testing is the antibodies that might indicate an intolerance are present in the body for many reasons.

They protect against bacterial and viral infections. Depending on the state of your immune system, your body could react to food with these antibodies differently on any given day. That’s why the results are widely inaccurate.

It is currently a huge problem, with many clinics and online testing options telling people they are intolerant to various foods when they really aren’t.

Her avoidance is supported by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), which states it ‘couldn’t identify any evidence the tests worked’.

See more health and fitness features here.


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