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The Science Behind Food Allergies and Intolerances: What You Need to Know

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Food allergies and intolerances are common conditions that can cause adverse reactions when certain foods are consumed. While they may share some similarities, the underlying mechanisms and responses of the immune system differ between the two.

Food Allergies

Food allergies occur when the immune system mistakenly identifies harmless proteins in certain foods as threats. Upon exposure, the immune system produces an antibody called immunoglobulin E (IgE), which triggers the release of chemicals such as histamine. These chemicals cause allergic symptoms, ranging from mild to severe, within minutes or hours of consuming the allergenic food.

For example, a person with a peanut allergy may experience symptoms such as hives, swelling, difficulty breathing, or even anaphylaxis after consuming peanuts or foods containing traces of peanuts.

Food allergies are typically diagnosed through a combination of medical history, physical examination, and specific allergy tests, such as skin prick tests or blood tests to detect IgE antibodies. Strict avoidance of the allergenic food is the primary management approach, and individuals with severe allergies may be prescribed epinephrine auto-injectors for emergency use.

Food Intolerances

Food intolerances, on the other hand, do not involve the immune system. They occur when the body is unable to properly digest or metabolize certain components of food, such as lactose or gluten. Unlike food allergies, food intolerances do not trigger an immune response or cause life-threatening reactions.

For instance, lactose intolerance is the inability to digest lactose, the sugar found in milk and dairy products. People with lactose intolerance may experience symptoms like bloating, gas, diarrhea, or abdominal pain after consuming lactose-containing foods.

Diagnosing food intolerances can be challenging as there are no definitive tests available. Elimination diets, where specific foods are removed from the diet and reintroduced gradually, can help identify trigger foods. Managing food intolerances often involves avoiding or reducing intake of the offending component, such as lactose or gluten, or using over-the-counter digestive aids.

References:

It's important to consult with a healthcare professional for a proper diagnosis and personalized management plan if you suspect you have a food allergy or intolerance.

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