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Food Allergies vs. Sensitivities

Are you really allergic?  Or do you just want to be gluten-free?  I’ve been asked these questions countless times in the last 15 years.  Typically, I keep my answer simple and just respond that I am allergic, so the person questioning me will just leave me along.  What I really want to say is “Everything in life is a choice. I choose to do what is best for my body and that means not eating gluten!”  Enduring those questions, experiencing the frustration of ordering at restaurants, and seeing first-hand what positive dietary changes can do for my body has inspired me to help others when they are faced with a similar challenge.  Educating yourself on the terminology used is the first step to understanding your body and what it is going through…

Food Allergies vs. Food Sensitivities… what’s the difference?

Food allergies occur when the body views the food as a foreign substance and the immune system is mobilized to attack.  There is typically a histamine response and symptoms onset very quickly (within minutes or hours).  For some people, these symptoms can last for up to 48 hours.  Testing for food allergies can be done through a skin prick test or blood test.  The skin prick test can determine if the body has a reaction to the food by developing a raised bump.  The blood test actually measures the immune system’s response by measuring the amount of immunoglobulin E (IgE) also known as the allergy-related antibody.  Frequently, a person suffering from food allergies is aware of the biggest offenders because the symptoms can be more intense than a sensitivity.  Symptoms of food allergies can include, but are not limited to:

  • sudden onset of low blood pressure, dizziness, or faintness
  • swelling of the lips or throat, nausea, or feeling bloated
  • diarrhea or vomiting
  • dry, itchy throat or tongue, coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, or a runny or blocked nose
  • itchy skin, rash, hives
  • anaphylaxsis

It is critical that the person allergic avoid the offending foods.  In an allergy situation, it could be a matter of life or death.  Treatments are variable, including allergy shots or low level exposure to desensitize the immune system.  When discussing a patient’s food allergies with them, my best piece of advise… when in doubt, don’t eat it!

Food sensitivities are a different story.  In this case, the body doesn’t have an acute immune system response.  The body can still has an adverse reaction to a food, but there is not an IgE mediated response.  The biggest challenge with food sensitivities is the sometimes delayed onset of a reaction.  For some people, the reaction can occur within hours.  However, for some, it can take days to notice.  The delayed reaction makes it much harder to pinpoint the culprit.  The symptoms associated with a food sensitivity are variable and many people blame “other causes” for their symptoms:

  • stomach/bowel upset (IBS)
  • abdominal bloating or generalized increased inflammation
  • headaches or migraines
  • wheezing or runny nose
  • hives
  • generally not feeling good

Testing for food sensitivities is more challenging than testing for food allergies.  There are blood tests that may reveal a different immunoglobulin or antibody involved known as the IgG antibody.  Although there is some controversy over the reliability of testing for IgG antibodies, I have found the results clinically significant.  I have many patients, including my family, that have experienced life-changing positive results by removing the foods that tested positive from their diets.  In some cases, the sensitivity is life-long whereas in other cases there has been successful reintroduction of the food.  Other “testing” methods include keeping a food journal to evaluate for trends in symptoms and foods eaten and/or an elimination diet.  The elimination diet is simply that, eliminate the suspected foods for a period of time and then reintroduce one food at a time to see if symptoms return.  I highly encourage you to speak with a physician or specialist while going through the process of determining food sensitivities.  The process can be an overwhelming challenge!  However, when the methods are done properly and with guidance, the results can be life-changing.

For information regarding the food sensitivity testing we can perform at Body Logic, click here.