Food allergies and intolerances are an increasing problem, sparking a renewed focus into what causes them as people seek prevention before cure.
Dr Shefali Verma-Johnson, a general practitioner at the Institute for Biophysical Medicine in Dubai, is seeing how the medical profession is changing the way it treats patients with those conditions.
“When I trained, we learned to control the symptoms of diseases,” she says. “Nowadays we’re trying to look at what’s actually causing the symptoms. People are taking charge of their health and the new age of medicine is about finding the cause as opposed to fixing the symptoms.”
In other words, instead of simply avoiding a certain food that makes them feel unwell, people now are far more likely to want to investigate why it makes them feel unwell.
“It used to be that if your child had asthma, you just accepted it,” says Dr Verma-Johnson. “Now the attitude is, ‘my child has asthma – maybe we can do something about it.’ And if you feel bad when you eat certain foods, you go and get tested.”
Not all allergies are the same. In fact, they have been divided into three categories and it is important to know the difference.
- A true food allergy is when the immune system responds almost immediately – and certainly within five minutes – to a specific food with potentially severe symptoms, such as swelling or hives. This reaction might occur even if the food is not ingested but merely in the vicinity of the person with the allergy. Most importantly, a food allergy can be life-threatening so anyone who has one almost certainly knows it.
- Food sensitivity is less obvious. Symptoms might include bloating, migraine, dry or itchy skin and diarrhoea, which could all be ascribed to other common ailments. Also, they might not appear until up to 48 hours after ingesting the trigger food. This delay means people can go for years or even a lifetime without realizing they have a food sensitivity.
- A food intolerance is caused by the lack of an enzyme needed to break down a certain food and results in gastrointestinal problems. Intolerances also tend to run in families.
The best general advice is to avoid junk and processed food but the biggest culprits for sensitivity and intolerance tend to be wheat and dairy, says Dr Robin Tauzin, a naturopathic doctor and chief wellness officer at Al Mansoori, the specialized engineering company in Abu Dhabi.
“Take those out and people tend to do pretty well,” she says.
Gluten is also often a culprit, but that doesn’t mean gluten-free foods get a pass, as many are highly processed.
“Gluten-free doesn’t mean healthy,” warns eating behavior coach Tatiana Kuvardina. “Gluten is taken out but other stuff is added to make it tasty.”
Another term we are hearing much more often these days is “leaky gut.” This is when cracks or holes develop in the small intestine, or gut, causing inflammation and allowing partly-digested food and toxins to penetrate the tissue.
Some studies suggest that as well as allergies, a leaky gut might be linked to autoimmune diseases including multiple sclerosis, chronic fatigue syndrome and arthritis. The condition can contribute to obesity, acne and even mental illness.
It is crucial to identify what’s causing the leaky gut by carrying out comprehensive stool tests.
“If we don’t sort out what’s actually happening in your gut, the symptoms will always come back,” says Dr Tauzin.
Eliminating inflammatory foods will usually alleviate the condition, but results would not happen overnight, she warned.
Dr Robin Tauzin, Dr Shefali Verma-Johnson and Tatiana Kuvardina all took part in a panel discussion on food allergies at the first Livehealthy Festival which took place on January 24-25, 2020 at Manarat Al Saadiyat, Abu Dhabi.
Danae Mercer is a freelance health and travel journalist. In addition to working as editor-in-chief of Women's Health Middle East and Men's Health Middle East, Danae has written for The Sunday Times, CNN Travel, Dubai Tourism, The Guardian, Afar, Bloomberg and many more. She's based in Dubai and is a trainer at Crank. instagram.com/danaemercer