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.