Your question is timely; in May 12, 2010 the Journal of the American Medical Association published a review of research on food allergies that clearly indicated these disorders are problematic to diagnose and treat. However, the reviewers also determined that only a small minority of adults, less than five percent, have true food allergies.
I discussed your question with Randy Horwitz, M.D., medical director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine and an expert on allergy and immunology. Dr. Horwitz told me that the problems that most adults regard as allergies are actually food intolerances or sensitivities. He noted that with a careful history and testing an allergist can differentiate between a “true” food allergy and what may be an intolerance or sensitivity.
What’s the difference?
True allergies involve immediate, measurable reactions from the immune system, which can become life-threatening in some cases. Food intolerance or sensitivities also appear to be rooted in the immune system, but reactions to them can be subtle, are more variable, and while some can certainly interfere with activities of daily living, they tend to be annoyances rather than dangerous.
Dr. Horwitz explained that some problems with food will resolve if you strictly avoid the ones that cause you trouble for a period of time and then reintroduce them slowly one by one to see if you can handle them. If and when your physician approves this strategy, Dr. Horwitz said he would recommend clinical hypnotherapy as an adjunctive treatment. He added that emotions have been shown to play a role in the body’s responses to allergens and irritants and that in one published study, laughter was shown to reduce the reactivity of skin when testing for allergies.
Dr. Horwitz and I agree that there is no body cleanse that will eliminate residual allergens – the only potential solution is avoidance. What’s more, there are not many proven complementary or alternative therapies for true food allergies, especially those that have potentially life-threatening consequences such as the breathing problems you describe. Consulting a practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine might be helpful, and Dr. Horwitz noted that a research team in New York City is testing a very promising traditional Chinese formulation that has proven to be remarkably effective in treating and preventing peanut allergies in animals.
I hope this helps and will set you on a course to overcome your problems with so many foods.
Andrew Weil, M.D.