It’s all so confusing! Is it an allergy, intolerance, or sensitivity?


Our bodies don’t always like the foods we eat and beverages we drink. I’m sure this is no surprise. What can be confusing, though, are the different types of reactions to food and beverages that our body can produce. Understanding the differences can help figure out what is going on. However, even understanding the differences and labels for those responses can be confusing. There isn’t a standard definition of allergy, intolerance, or sensitivity that is agreed upon in the medical community. The definitions I use below are the ones I use with my clients.

The first type of reaction is a true allergy. With a true food allergy, there is an anaphylactic response. This means the person gets an itchy mouth, closing of the esophagus, swelling of the tongue, etc. These require an immediate response, usually with an EpiPen and a trip to the hospital.

Next, are food intolerances. These are when someone is intolerant to a food it is less serious and typically involves digestive issues. For example, lactose intolerance is a food intolerance. You are missing the enzyme lactase that is needed to break down lactose. Irritable bowel syndrome may be a cause of food intolerances. Stress and psychological can come into play – the thought of food can make you sick.

Food sensitivities are when your immune system releases mediators. There are about 100 different mediators that your immune cells can release in response to a food. Mediators can cause inflammation, edema (water retention), mucus secretion, and pain receptor activation among other symptoms. When you eat a food and your immune system responds by releasing mediators you feel a symptom from that food that may not necessarily seem to be related to the food. Some mediators are linked to migraines. Others to IBS. Others seem to be associated with arthritis and other inflammatory conditions.

There is no “gold standard” for food sensitivity testing. That’s another reason that is confusing. However, that doesn’t mean that food sensitivity testing shouldn’t be a tool you can use to figure out what is causing your problems.

Have you been tested for food sensitivities? If so, post your experience below. I’d be interested in hearing about it. If you’re interested in food sensitivity testing or seeing if it is right for you, you can contact me here.

Removing What’s Bugging You – Part 1

If you have a mosquito biting you, you remove it. Right? If you have an ant biting you, you remove it. Right? OK. You kill the mosquito or the ant.

What about if you have a food that you react to? If that food revs up your immune system? Causes you to have headaches? Or, just not feel good? Wouldn’t you remove it?

When talking about food allergies and intolerances it’s important to distinguish the difference. A true food allergy causes an anaphylactic response. Anaphylactic responses are life threatening and usually involve swelling, hives, lowered blood pressure and dilated blood vessels. Someone having an anaphylactic response may have their throat close or tongue swell. They may get itchy. These are life-threatening situations.

Food intolerances, on the other hand, can cause gastrointestinal symptoms such as bloating, gas, and diarrhea. They can also cause vague symptoms such as headaches, brain fog, fatigue, aches, and allergies. And, food intolerances can take up to 3 days to show up where as a food allergy usually happens within minutes.

Most people know if they have a food allergy. They’ve eaten something and ended up in the emergency room. Not everyone knows that they have a food intolerance.

If you’re trying to optimize how your digestive system works or restore gut function, removing foods that your body reacts negatively is critical. That’s why it’s one piece of the first of the “5 R’s of Gut Restoration”.

How do you know if you have a food intolerance? Since the symptoms can be vague, it can be hard to figure out.

If you think you have a food intolerance, a common way to start figuring it out is with an elimination diet. There are quite a few out there. A popular one for people with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is FODMAPS. FODMAPS are Fermentable Oligo-, Di-, Mono-Saccharides, And Polyols. These are foods that contain sugars (oligo-, di- and mono-saccharides) and sugar alcohols (polyols) that are fermented by the bacteria in your large intestine – your microbiome. The FODMAP diet was developed by a research group in Australia and has been proven through research to work well for treating those with IBS. However, there could bother foods that aren’t FODMAPS that you still react to. What then?

There are several ways to test for food intolerances. However, there is no “gold standard” for food intolerance testing. Some allergists use skin prick testing. And, there are several blood testing methods including ALCAT and LEAP. Each of these test different numbers of foods and additives and some even test medications. These can give you a starting point for what foods you react to and which foods are “safe”.

Another way to figure out if there are foods you are reacting to is to go on an elimination diet and log your food and symptoms. I recommend logging everything – food, drinks, supplements, medications as well as emotions and symptoms.  Then, playing detective with the log and figuring out what items may be suspect.

Next week, I’ll continue talking more about Removing What’s Bugging You. Because, there are quite a few things to think about Removing if you want to restore your gut or have a gut that functions optimally.

If you want to get the food log I use with my clients, you can do so here. If you want to learn more about food sensitivity testing, you use the “Contact” area on my website.