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What pops into your head when the term ‘food allergy’ comes up? Maybe you’re reminded of your friend who has a peanut allergy. Or perhaps you thought of the gluten-free pasta selection in the supermarket. In reality, however, food allergies are more common than you may think. According to a 2018 Australian study, food allergies affect up to ten per cent of the general population, and the rates seem to be increasing worldwide.

What’s more shocking is that there are more than 160 identified foods that can cause food allergies, according to the US FDA. And you might not even know you’re suffering from food allergies or intolerances, as some symptoms are not well-known. So, read on for everything from the symptoms to look out for to the steps you can take if you suspect you might have a food allergy or intolerance.

Allergies vs Intolerances

 ‘Food allergies are when the immune system “overreacts” to certain foods because the immune system sees the food as a threat,’ says Tricia Yap, a functional medicine and nutrition coach, and the founder of Limitless gym. ‘The reaction triggers a chemical cascade, which results in an allergic reaction.

While the symptoms of a food allergy are similar to food intolerances, the two are slightly different, according to Yap. ‘Food intolerances are where the body doesn’t produce the enzymes to digest the food properly — for example, lactose intolerance. Food intolerances affect the digestive system and are less serious than a food allergy,’ she says.

According to studies, food allergies could be genetically inherited, but environmental factors could also play a part. An allergic reaction occurs when the immune system mistakes harmless antigens found in food as a threat, therefore producing antibodies to fight against the antigen, says Yap. ‘The more exposure there is, the more antibodies are produced, which trigger cellular and chemical responses that manifest as physical symptoms,’ she adds.

Allergies & Symptoms: What We Know

In Hong Kong, 70 per cent of people who have a severe food allergy are allergic to seafood, according to the Hong Kong Asthma Society. It’s common knowledge that other allergens can include chicken eggs, cow’s milk, soy, peanut and tree nuts, but as the HKAS points out, we could be allergic to seeds, fruit, vegetables, spices, food additives or meat. As Yap says, ‘No whole food can be considered completely free of allergens, as you can be allergic to virtually any food. So the list of foods to avoid is actually unique to you.

And like the allergens, the symptoms of an allergic reaction can be well-known or less obvious. We often think of people going red, being itchy or having rashes, or having difficulty breathing in extreme cases, but other common symptoms can range from stomach issues to headaches, fatigue, high blood pressure and even anxiety and depression.

Fortunately, an allergy may be temporary. ‘Some food allergies can last a lifetime and others may not,’ says Yap. ‘Children can outgrow an allergy to dairy and eggs, for example. It depends on the type of immunoglobin response — IgE, IGg or IgA — and severity.

Indeed, according to a US study, six per cent of children experience allergic reactions to food in the first three years of life, with the most common foods being cow’s milk, eggs and peanuts. In many cases, children tend to outgrow milk and egg allergies by the time they go to school. However, the ones with peanut, nut or seafood allergies usually retain them for life.

How to Seek Treatment

A good start would be to consult your GP, visit a licensed allergist, of which there are a handful in Hong Kong, or opt for an elimination diet with the help of a nutritionist. ‘Gut health has been linked to food allergies. As the major site of nutrient absorption and home to 80 per cent of your body’s immune cells, it makes sense that the gut is a key factor,’ says Yap. ‘Doing an elimination protocol can help to restore gut function, but this should be done under the supervision of a professional.

Other approaches such as the GI-MAP test could also be beneficial, says Yap. The test helps you understand your overall microbiota and digestive health, detecting microbes that may be affecting your immune function, inflammation and absorption. But Yap notes that testing accuracy is debatable and depends on the type, lab and methodology, so it’s best to work closely with a medical professional on this.

After diagnosing your allergy, your medical professional will be able to start a personalised allergy treatment plan that could range from avoidance to injections, and hopefully will have you feeling tip-top in no time.