The Growing Incidence of Food Intolerance is Fuelling the Need for Reliable Tests

Many people are adversely affected in some way by the things that they eat. Reactions to ingested foodstuffs vary widely, from relatively mild gastro-intestinal discomfort, to skin irritation, severe pulmonary congestion and, in extreme cases, collapse and death due to total failure of bodily systems. Fortunately, the more severe symptoms are less common, only affecting about 1% of adults. These are caused by allergic reactions in which the body mistakenly identifies proteins, in items such as nuts, shellfish, and dairy products, as harmful and produces antibodies to counteract them. Allergies should not be confused with food intolerance. A simple test, in conjunction with the milder symptoms, will distinguish between these two conditions.

It is thought that as much 13% of adults suffer these milder symptoms, and the most common triggers are gluten in wheat products, and lactose present in milk, butter, cheese, and other dairy products. Another feature of this increasingly common condition that serves to distinguish from an allergy is the time delay between ingestion and the onset of symptoms. In the case of allergies, the effects are almost immediate, whilst in those suffering from food intolerance, the typical symptoms of abdominal pain and bloating will usually only occur some while later, which should help to determine the type of diagnostic test required.

Because the symptoms of these reactive conditions are the result of two different physiological mechanisms, that difference may be capitalised upon for diagnostic purposes. In the case of allergies, the response to the presence of a triggering substance is the production of a specific antibody by the immune system. Testing may be achieved with a skin prick to introduce a tiny amount of the suspected allergen, which will provoke topical itching, redness, and swelling if positive. Alternatively, the presence of antibodies in the patient’s blood may be confirmed and quantified.

However, no antibodies are produced in genuine food intolerance so, until recently, the only way to test for such conditions was by means of an oral challenge, which involved keeping a detailed food diary and making a note of which meals provoked the symptoms. To control those symptoms, the offending edibles would then be avoided in future. In practice, it usually takes a substantial intake to provoke a reaction so, for example, milk taken in tea or coffee is likely to have no effect, and only when consumed by the glassful will the discomfort occur.

A quicker and more reliable type of food intolerance test relies, not on an oral challenge, but on a cellular one. Performed on a blood sample, it determines how a patient’s cells react to everyday foodstuffs and other potentially harmful substances in his or her diet. Any reactions observed are seen as related to the root causes of abnormal sensitivity and serve to identify each of the specific substances responsible.

More significantly, this type of test is not only able to identify food intolerances, but is also able to pick up allergies and differentiate between the two. The findings of this type of test enables physicians to make more informed decisions about modifications to their patients’ diets that will eliminate the dangers of allergies, as well as the gastro-intestinal discomfort experienced when consuming foods containing gluten or lactose, for example.

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