Allergies and the athlete: Sensitive New Age Guys
by Dominique le Roux
A significant part of the world’s population is wandering around with niggles and ailments caused by allergies and food intolerances but they’re so unhealthy anyway, they don’t even know the difference. Athletes, on the other hand, know what real health feels like, and we want more of it. Dominique le Roux looks at why some perfectly fine foods can do us more harm than good.
We were cycling up Ou Kaapse Weg at the time. And I was taking strain. So perhaps that’s why the simple truth struck me with all the voema of profound revelation.
The guy cruising up next to me was telling me about the health and physiology modules he’s studying at the moment to qualify as a massage therapist; in particular, the diseases he needs to learn to identify. And, he said, he was simply amazed how stress was the one recurring theme in all of these. And not just work stress or emotional angst, he pointed out. But train really hard, and your body sees this as stress too. (Not to mention worrying about whether your least favourite person at the club is going to beat you in Sunday’s race.) It’s all stress, and something’s gotta give.
I mean I’ve always been mortified that I end up sick more often than the seriously unfit chicks at the office. And I’m not talking about the injuries from spills, etc. No, it’s the colds and ailments that I just can’t escape. Of course, a significant part of the world’s population is wandering around with niggles and ailments caused by allergies, but they do not expect their bodies to perform at optimum levels – in fact, they probably do not even know what real health feels like, so they just put up with it. Ignorance, it seems, really is bliss. I, on the other hand, am stressing my body up those hills, and I notice every niggle.
You and I don’t want a single thing to hold us back from whipping the arses of our arch enemies and best friends at the weekend’s race. So the symptoms of food allergies and intolerances that might be molehills to others take on mountainous proportions in our lives.
First, the definitions: there is a difference between a food allergy and a food intolerance. James Collier, a nutritionist writing for www.muscletalk.co.uk, gives a great description: “When used correctly, ''food allergy'' refers to a hypersensitivity reaction to a particular food or constituent of a food mediated by substances in the blood called immunoglobulins. Antibodies are produced in response to the food being miss-recognised as a foreign, dangerous particle.”
And here he gets to a simple summary: “Allergies are basically the body''s own immune system gone wrong… Symptoms can be initiated by even a minute amount of the offending food and can vary from a mild rash, swelling or an upset stomach, to severe anaphylactic shock which is life-threatening without medical treatment.”
Collier points out that, unlike food allergies, a ''food intolerance'' does not involve the immune system: “Rather it is a physical problem by an irritant or poor digestion of a food.” He explains that the physical symptoms of a food intolerance, such as intestinal discomfort, can resemble those of a food allergy, and that’s why they’re easily confused. The stats support this: I’ve read that one in three Americans think they have a food allergy, but actually only 1% of the population does.
Symptoms of food intolerance, says Collier, usually occur from between a few minutes up to a couple of days after eating an offending food. “A person with an intolerance may be able to eat small quantities of the food without a problem, and only be intolerant to it at higher levels, for example in lactose intolerance, or alactasia, which is a genetic deficiency in the enzyme lactase which is involved in digesting the milk sugar lactose. In lactose intolerance it is extremely rare to be able to synthesise any lactase at all, but it is not uncommon to have lower than normal levels of the enzyme. Such people can digest small amounts of dairy produce perfectly fine, but larger amounts cause abdominal discomfort, bloating and loose stools. Furthermore, if the individual has no milk products for a few weeks, and then has a small amount or milk, they''ll find they are less tolerant than previously, whereas if they continue to have a small amount daily, they can generally tolerate this amount with zero problems.”
My own experience supports this. After my first Cape Epic, I suffered for months with acute and chronic sinusitis. The doctors whacked me on antibiotic after antibiotic and I was booked to have that sinus op when a friend sent me off to her homoeopath. He took one look at me, told me what my blood type was and that I was allergic to milk and wheat. “Give them up,” he said, “and you’ll be fine.”
This arrogant and superficial diagnosis annoyed me in the extreme, but not as much as the R250 he charged me for the advice. Weeks later, out of desperation and, I guess, to prove him wrong, I thought I’d try his ‘elimination’ diet. It’s hard, let me tell you. And he said I’d only start really feeling an improvement after three weeks. Well, truth is, I didn’t last three weeks. But I felt enormously better after one. I reintroduced wheat and was fine, but just a bit of froth on a cappuccino had me all mucousy again. For the first time in my life I knew what it was like not to have an incessant post-nasal drip, so these days I’m not even tempted by dairy any more. (And now I buy my cycling gloves based on their colour and fit, rather than how softly and effectively they wipe my nose.)
Approximately 90 percent of all food allergies are caused by eight foods: milk, eggs, wheat, soy, tree nuts, fish, shellfish and peanuts. Of course many other foods can be at the root of food allergies or sensitivities, especially berries and other fruits, tomatoes, corn, and some meats like pork. Migraine headaches have been associated with sensitivities to chemicals contained in red wine, deli meats, aged cheeses, and the tannins in tea. And though there is said to be a genetic factor involved, in that you are more likely to have a food allergy if one of your parents does, this doesn’t mean you will be allergic to the same food.
Allergic symptoms may begin within minutes to an hour after ingesting the food, and the most common ones are vomiting, diarrhea, cramps, hives, swelling, eczema, itching or swelling of the lips, tongue, or mouth, itching or tightness in the throat, difficulty breathing, wheezing and lowered blood pressure.
According to the USA’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, it does not take much of the food to cause a severe reaction in highly allergic people. In fact, as little as 1/44 000 of a peanut kernel can cause an allergic reaction for severely allergic individuals! (No wonder Woollies and others warn on their packaging when something is even made in a factory that works with peanuts.)
Interestingly, according to www.webmd.com (a brilliantly useful site – worth checking out), the more common a food is, the more likely it is that people will be allergic to it. “For example, rice allergy is seen in Japan, and codfish allergy is seen in Scandinavia. As foods from around the world have become more available, the number of allergic reactions to exotic fruits such as kiwi and papaya and to seeds such as sesame seeds and poppy seeds have increased. Because peanuts are used in so many foods, peanut allergy has increased in the United States in the past two decades and is now a major cause of severe allergic food reactions.”
With the frequency with which so many of us eat sandwiches and live on bread, it’s no surprise then that wheat allergies seem to be increasingly common. Celiac disease is caused by an allergy to a protein (gluten) found in wheat and some other grains.
I guess for active athletes this is particularly the case. Though we know we should get as much variety into our diets as possible, it’s difficult to balance timing with variety. I, for example, train in the mornings. This means heading off in the dark, whizzing through the house afterwards in a rush of undressing out of sweaty gear and pulling on work clothes, while trying to throw some nutrition down my throat, before dashing off to work where the only lunch is either the same nutritional shake day after day or the same old sandwiches on sale. Then, because I trained in the morning and got to work late, I leave work late when I’m tired and I just rush through the store and pick up the meal I know I like and is easy… Tomorrow more of the same. Not a whole lot of thought about variety. (But then I’m sure you can’t identify. You’re so much more organized and analytical, I’ll bet.)
Back to the issue of stress: particularly when you are taxing your body to the extreme, you want to make sure you’re avoiding foods that your body might be sensitive to. Some people are sensitive to fructose and other sugars, so look carefully at how you respond to your energy drinks. And if you have a lactose intolerance, remember that some energy drinks and quite a few nutritional supplements and meal replacements contain milk products. And then of course there are the egg and soya products in so many protein shakes. And while you’re trying to cut those kilos and become a lean and mean racing machine, people will tell you to favour fish, only that turns out to be high on the list of allergy-inducing foods.
Apart from very expensive and less-than-100% reliable tests, rather watch for any signs of discomfort, eliminate any potential problem-causers from your diet, and slowly reintroduce them. And then of course read the labels carefully.
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