Sense About Science is a scientific charity whose remit is to inform the public and enable them to ‘make sense’ of scientific and medical discussions. A worthy aim in which they are usually moderately successful. However, they have just tackled allergy and, although they have recruited the best ‘experts’ and covered the subject very comprehensively, I suspect that the allergy virgin might go away a good deal more confused than they started! Not SAS’s fault but, the more we discover about allergy the less we actually seem to understand…
Anyhow the paper is well worth a read if you want to bring yourself up to date with the latest thinking. And slightly to my surprise, since they are coming from a strictly conventional medical standpoint, they made very few points with which the more ‘alternative-minded’ could take issue. But, inevitably, one of these was the much disputed area of allergy tests.
The discussion about ‘allergy testing’ is always bedevilled by semantics. While the term is understood by medics to refer to testing for immune-sytem related, ‘true’ allergies, the wider public use it for any test which might tell them what substance (usually a food or drink) is making them feel ill.
The discussion is further complicated complicated by:
1. The fact that even the medically ‘approved’ tests to diagnose IgE mediated ‘true’ allergy (skin prick and blood tests) are widely recognised to be seriously flawed and are really only useful as a back up to a clear history of allergic reactions.
2. The fact that conventional medicine can offer no tests at all that will diagnose sensitivity/intolerance.
3. That many alternative practitioners can be very hazy about the difference between a immune-system related allergy and an intolerance or sensitivity which can make the patient extremely ill, but will not cause a reaction which, in very rare cases, could prove fatal.
So the SAS paper lists Applied kinesiology, cytotoxic tests (ALCAT, FACT etc), Food specific IgG tests (York tests), hair testing, NAET and vega tests as being dangerous and to be avoided at all costs. As indeed they are if you think that you have a true, IgE-mediated allergy that could trigger your immune system into a violent and possibly even fatal reaction. However, if you feel like death, you have been referred for skin prick and/or blood tests and they have proved negative and your GP has run out of suggestions, any sort of test that offers you some sort of answers must be appealing.
What many of these tests do, especially those which rely on energy medicine (vega tests, NAET, kinesiology) is to measure disturbances or blockages in your energy pathways and to try to establish whether that disturbance is greater when you are in close contact with a specific food, drink or other substance than when you are not. If it is, then the assumption is that that excluding that particular food, drink or substance from your diet or your environment might be beneficial. If you accept the precepts of energy medicine then this is not an unreasonable assumption.
The danger is, of course, that if you are really unwell, you may react to all kinds of foods etc and that you could seriously restrict your diet – but, if your digestive process is seriously compromised for whatever reason, then a very restricted diet may be just what it needs.
In any case, the only true test of intolerance is ‘exclusion and challenge’ – excluding the food or drink for limited period of time, seeing if your symptoms improve, then re-introducing it and seeing if your symptoms get worse. The crucial element is for both the therapist and the patient to use their common sense. A highly restricted diet for a week is not going to do anyone any harm – a highly restricted diet for six months or a year might well. So if the restricted diet produces no benefits and the patient feels no better after two, or an absolute maximum of three weeks, then it should be discontinued and an answer sought either with another food or in an entirely different area altogether.
In fact, a ‘challenge’ is the only really reliable test for a true allergy also. But, because of the inherent dangers in getting someone you believe to be allergic to a specific food to actually try eating it, challenges can only be carried out under controlled medical conditions – an expensive option so rarely on offer. But even here, an application of common sense is vital. I have heard of ten-year olds whose lives are extremely restricted by ‘allergies’ to peanuts, milk and eggs. But these kids were diagnosed by skin prick tests when they were infants, have never suffered an allergic reaction to these foods, and have never been ‘challenged’. Given that 40-80% of children who ‘test’ positive to peanuts, do not react to them, this seems to be just as inappropriate and unnecessarily restrictive diet as any suggested by a Vega or a NAET practitioner!
The last section of the paper, Allergy Myths, deals with a whole range of myths which surround allergy – with very little basis in fact – including claim that either raw milk or A2 milk can ‘cure’ allergies. While either of these milks may be better tolerated by those with compromised digestions than standard, pasteurised A1 milk, all milks, be they raw, A1, or A2, contain the proteins that trigger an allergic reaction so must be avoided by anyone with a cow’s milk protein allergy.
Mind you, I did take exception to the suggestion that you should avoid ‘raw’ milk because you can get E.coli poisoning from it…. A suggestion hotly disputed by raw milk supporters who maintain that ‘raw’ milk has a shiningly good record as far as all bacteria are concerned. See the figures from the US quoted here.