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What are the Differences Between Food Sensitivities, Intolerances, and Allergies?

by Sally Wright |



A food allergy is an immune reaction to food. In other words, your body’s immune system identifies a specific food as an invader and reacts accordingly by producing antibodies to protect you. When you hear the word “allergy” you probably think of an immediate reaction to an allergen like hives, throat closing, swelling, etc. There are 8 common allergens: milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soy.

Food Intolerance

A super common example of a symptom of food intolerance is experiencing loose stool after drinking milk because you are lactose intolerance. Lactose intolerance means that you are missing the enzyme lactase that is found in milk products. In short, an individual that is lactose intolerant is deficient in the enzyme required to break down the sugar in milk and milk products.

Food Sensitivity

Food sensitivities are the most debated, and most common, of the three (allergies, intolerance, sensitivities) and different practitioners often identify them differently.

Food sensitivities are more chronic, low-grade symptoms of inflammation. An allergic reaction can occur up to 72 hours after eating something or immediately after consumption. This can make it difficult to pinpoint.

Examples of food sensitivity symptoms are migraines, bloating, digestive symptoms, etc.

How do you treat allergies, intolerance, and sensitivities differently?

Food intolerance's usually require replacing the missing piece. Take the lactose intolerance example: a lactose intolerance could be treated with a lactase enzyme. Obviously, different intolerance's are caused by the lack of different enzymes, so every food intolerance is treated differently.

Food intolerance's are more related to how the body is digesting the food while food allergies and sensitivities are related to the immune system.

Food allergies often require avoidance of the allergen. In some cases, with those that improve their immune system status, they are able to handle seasonal allergies much better.

Food sensitivities require healing of the root cause or source issue. Some practitioners recommend that food sensitivities are avoided the same way that food allergies are, but it doesn’t have to be this way! Yes, short term avoidance is usually necessary, but that doesn’t mean that you always need to be sensitive to it! Treating food sensitivities like allergies is the most seen problem in food sensitivity testing.

With food sensitivities, it’s important to identify the root cause of the sensitivity. Typically, the root cause is related to the digestive system or the gut. Once the root cause is identified, you can work with a practitioner to help solve the problem!

What’s actually going on in the body when there’s a food sensitivity?

There are different types of reactions that happen. There are different antibodies in the immune system. Visualize your gut needing to be more like nylons instead of fishnet tights. We are supposed to digest things adequately—We are supposed to use our enzymes to digest and break food down. It should be semipermeable so nutrients can cross the barrier and go to their specialized “posts” through the body and do their job; food breaks down in the body and different nutrients get used for different purposes.

If you put a bunch of food into nylons, the food wouldn’t cross the barrier, but water and the nutrients would. Fishnet tights would allow larger pieces of food to escape, which could cause problems.

The gut has tight gap junctions that can get pulled apart. Instead of the food getting digested appropriately, it can escape across the barrier. So food can land where it’s not supposed to and the body reacts poorly.

What are the most common signs and symptoms of a food sensitivity?

Inflammation is the root cause of mostly everything. Early and common signs of inflammation are things like digestive symptoms, gas, and congestion. Other signs and symptoms can be less direct: random aches/pains, exhaustion, headaches etc.

Clients that have insomnia have been triggered by black pepper. Another client got predictably cranking after eating port. we’re talking about random, unique symptoms of a food sensitivity.

All of these symptoms of inflammation can at first seem unrelated at first, but more often than not, they can be traced back to inflammation caused from food intolerance.

What is the most common thing that people do incorrectly when they find out they have a food sensitivity?

The big question is: If you invest in getting a food sensitivity test done, what are you going to do with that information? Everyone thinks that a test will solve their problem, but tests are just tools! It’s interesting and fun to learn about ourselves, but it boils down to how you’re going to implement changes based on your results.

Working with a practitioner to heal your food sensitivity is key! There are a lot of nuances to food sensitivities and having an expert help you navigate the water is the difference maker.

Why is it that even anti inflammatory foods like salmon, ginger, and blueberries can be reactive in the body?

We all have those foods that we enjoy to eat. Even better when that food is a healthy, anti inflammatory food, right? Believe it or not, you can develop a food sensitivity to foods that you eat most often based on your level of permeability.

Dealing with dysbiosis and permeability are actually pretty common. Once you strategically work through the steps of healing and body awareness, you should be able to improve your body’s response to these foods!

What is the most common criticism of food sensitivity testing?

One of the criticisms of food sensitivity testing is that you results might change slightly day-to-day. This is possible depending on your level of permeability or “how open your door is.”

That being said, if this is the case, the results would be minimally different and the ultimate results are just the same!

Who should consider getting a food sensitivity test?

Short cuts are always the sexy answer, but they are almost never the answer! If you’ve tried different approaches before and nothing’s worked, the food sensitivity test might be for you! Especially if you are open minded, motivated, and committed to the process. While the results are rewarding and successful, this is not a sexy short cut!

Healing a food sensitivity is not simply getting a test. The journey is not linear. It is hard work, but it’s worth it!

What’s the next step?

Do you have any more questions about food sensitivities? Leave them in the comment on Instagram @Frownies below so that we can support you and your healing.