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Food Allergies and Pregnancy

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For Stacia Broadhead, drinking a glass of milk would be lethal. “Whenever I eat something with even a little bit of milk in it, like bread, my mouth tingles,” explains the Houston mother of three. “I know to stop eating whatever it is or else my throat tightens and it becomes difficult to breathe.” Broadhead has been allergic to milk since infancy. Her allergies seemed to subside for a time in her early twenties. Yet with her first pregnancy she says her symptoms came back stronger, and ingesting even the slightest amount of milk gave her the familiar tingle.

Over the past ten years, there has been an explosion of research and information as food allergies have gained recognition—and acceptance—in the medical world. Still, there is little research on how pregnancy may affect a woman’s allergies. Most women with food allergies like Broadhead tend to self-regulate their symptoms; however, women with food allergies, or those who suspect that they may have an allergy should take extra precautions during pregnancy to ensure the safety of their own health—and their babies’.

What Are Food Allergies?

According to the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network, 11 million Americans or four percent of the general population suffer from true food allergies. Put simply, a food allergy is when a person’s immune system falsely considers an otherwise innocuous substance, like food, to be harmful. The body seeks to defend itself by creating antibodies to combat the supposed invader. These antibodies, called immunoglobulin E or IgE, act as scouts and messengers to the body’s immune defenses. Once the antibodies have been created, the body will be able to identify the food culprit and mount an attack. For this reason, most allergy sufferers will not experience a reaction the first time they eat a certain food, perhaps not even the second, but as their bodies build up more antibodies to the food, reactions will likely occur.

Food allergy symptoms include a host of inflammatory ills such as a runny nose, itchy throat, tingling sensations on the tongue, lips, or throat. Other symptoms include skin reactions like hives, rashes, eczema, or abdominal problems including cramps, diarrhea, or even vomiting. “Most people think it’s some rare or unusual food in a person’s diet that causes the reaction,” advises Dr. Carol Fenster, PhD, President and founder of the Savory Palate, and author of Wheat-Free Recipes and Menus “Usually it’s the foods you eat the most are the ones that cause the problem.”

It is important to note that food intolerances can cause problems similar to food allergies. Yet food intolerances differ because the body’s immune system is not involved in the reaction to the food. Lactose intolerance is an example of food intolerance where the body does not produce certain enzymes necessary to digest the food properly. Although food intolerances can make a person extremely uncomfortable, they are not life threatening. “Technically, people who suffer from food intolerances far outweigh those who suffer from food allergies,” says Dr. Fenster.

Causes and Effects

“Any food can potentially cause adverse reactions in your body,” says Dr. James Pollowitz an allergist in Scarsdale, New York, and the president of that state’s section of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (AAAAI). Yet in order to be a “food allergy” according to most physicians’ definition, the reaction must involve the immune system. Food allergy sufferers can tolerate different “doses” of the food. Broadhead can tolerate a little milk in certain foods, while some sufferers experience symptoms with the slightest contact; for instance if one person touches the food culprit and then touches the food allergy sufferer. (The most common food allergens include milk, eggs, wheat, soy, peanut, tree nuts, fish, and shellfish.)

Many women worry that their food allergies may hurt their unborn children, but in most cases, there is nothing to be concerned about. “Normally, an unborn baby will not be affected by food allergies unless the woman has a severe reaction,” says Dr. Dan Atkins, Director of Ambulatory Pediatrics at National Jewish Medical and Research Center. For instance, if a woman experiences a reaction to food and goes into anaphylactic shock or has a complete body shutdown, blood flow will be decreased to the baby. If the reaction isn’t stopped, both the woman and her unborn baby will die.

“I advise all my patients to carry their Epi-Pen in case of a problem, and yet I’m surprised how many don’t,” reports Dr. Atkins. Epi-Pen, or an injector for Epinephrine is a common medication used to control a severe allergic reaction. Broadhead admits she doesn’t like to carry hers. For milder symptoms, antihistamines such as Benadryl may be appropriate. But Dr. Atkins cautions that women consult with their obstetrician or midwife before taking any medication—especially over-the-counter ones that may cause other problems such as extreme drowsiness or dizziness.

Make sure to discuss any food allergy with your obstetrician or midwife. If there are certain foods that you’re avoiding, you may need additional vitamin supplements to provide adequate nutrition for you and your growing baby. On the advice of her doctor, Broadhead took calcium supplements along with her prenatal vitamins.

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