Rashes, watery eyes, headaches, behaviourial issues and potentially deadly anaphylaxis — David Richmond has seen them all.
From infants to adults, allergic reactions can happen at any age from any food imaginable. But according to Richmond, a naturopathic doctor at the St. Albert Naturopathic Clinic for nine years, how a person learns to cope makes all the difference to their health.
Richmond, whose two children also suffer from food allergies, said the first and most important step for someone newly diagnosed with a food allergy is to learn as much about it as possible. That includes the food group the offending item belongs to, knowing how to avoid the product and what reaction your body has to it.
"Your immune system, it's hypersensitive, which is why it reacts," he said. "It's about having the information to identify the food group, identify the trigger."
According to Health Canada, up to six per cent of young children and three to four per cent of adults in Canada suffer from some kind of allergy, where a harmless substance is identified by the body as toxic, and the body attacks it. This attack sends the body into a tailspin, causing a reaction ranging from a runny nose to complete closure of the bronchial tubes, shock and even death.
Although any food can become an allergen, the most common ones are eggs, wheat, shellfish and fish, soy, peanuts and tree nuts. Richmond said there are two kinds of reactions to allergens — one is the more common physical reactions and the other involves more subtle reactions, such as a change in mood.
Richmond said living with food allergies is doable. The trick, he added, is to know what to do and how to adhere to the restrictions of a person's allergies.
Make your own
For Lilly Byrdus, regional co-ordinator of the Allergy/Asthma Information Association, living with allergies is a daily reality. Her two daughters, now adults, have severe allergic reactions that started when they were young. Byrdus said she didn't have a lot of support when she first set out to learn more about allergies and what she could do to avoid them.
"It means doing things differently," she said. "In most cases, an alternate can be found."
Although finding the alternative to some of the more common food products can be difficult, Byrdus said it was possible with some research, such as in alternative cookbooks. She also said ensuring you have those alternates with you while travelling or out running around helps reduce risks.
While a particular food staple may not be an option anymore, Byrdus suggested going for the ethnic version of a meal can offer ideas about how to ensure someone with allergies is able to eat healthy.
Fellow allergy parent and head of the Edmonton Anaphylaxis Resource and Support (EARS) group Rebekah Esser agreed with the bring-your-own approach, saying managing one's allergies can be difficult even when visiting the homes of friends and family. Without personal experiences with allergies, many people don't fully grasp how serious reactions can be.
"Even our family was hard to educate," Esser said. Many people mistakenly believe that, as long as the offending food item is low on the ingredients list, there will be little to no reaction, she added.
Rain barrel effect
Nutritionist and Well Fit Bodies owner Lisa Kelly can empathize with those who live with food allergies. Kelly was diagnosed with dairy and wheat allergies and said she got into the business of trying to help others with their allergies during her own education about how they work.
From her own research, Kelly ties current problems with allergies to the types of food people eat. The general public eats a lot of the same foods day after day, forcing the body to overload in what she calls a "rain barrel effect."
"When it gets to be too much, the body overreacts," she said. "The more you get into it, the more intricate the allergies are."
Kelly suggests people look at a food elimination or rotation diet, based on advice from a health professional. Packing your own snacks and meals for life outside the home can be a big help day to day, she added.
When travelling with her family, Esser brings her own cooler of homemade treats and meals and ensures they find a hotel with a small fridge and microwave. When she first discovered her daughter's severe nut allergy and her son's dairy and egg reaction, Esser admits she didn't know what to do about feeding her children.
"I remember tears streaming down my face as I wondered how I would feed my kids," she said. "We just make it work."
Although planning and preparing meals can be the toughest part, Kelly said people should not be afraid to go somewhere prepared. That includes speaking with restaurants about potential substitutions and even watching the chef prepare your food to ensure no cross contamination occurs.
"You just have to speak up about your allergies," she said. "Accept the fact that you do have allergies. Your life is not over."
Esser said she decided to start the EARS group not only to share advice with other allergic people in the Capital region, but to offer support. Although she has noticed more people coming to the group for advice, there is not a lot of support for them in their changed life, she said.
Lack of support doesn't surprise Richmond. Although many of the patients he sees are already well educated about their own allergies, he said there is a distinct lack of support within mainstream society for those who are just learning about their allergies. But with some guidance from professionals and support groups, Richmond said it is possible to live with your allergies.
Most common food allergens
Wheat: Wheat allergies are different from intolerances to gluten. People with wheat allergies react to the wheat protein but can eat other glutinous flours, such as spelt and kamut, as well as rice, tapioca, corn or potato.
Dairy: Watch out for the words "whey protein" in any processed foods. Soy, almond and rice milks and ice creams are available, if you are not allergic to them.
Soy: Soy is used in many store-bought foods, including tofu, miso, monosodium glutamate (MSG) and some vegetable oils. Carefully read the label of any product you buy and ensure you know the alternate names of your allergen.
Tree nuts and peanuts: while the two categories are technically separate from each other, both are usually processed in the same plant. As a result, do not buy one if you are allergic to the other.
Eggs: for a baking substitute, use 1 tsp. baking powder, 1 Tbsp. any liquid and 1 Tbsp. vinegar or 1 tsp. yeast in 1/4 C. of warm water.
Shellfish and fish: do not touch or be near it while it is cooking. The steam from the seafood can still cause a reaction.
- Courtesy Mayo Clinic and the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network