Understanding the Difference Between Food Sensitivity and Food Allergy

Understanding the Difference Between Food Sensitivity and Food Allergy

There’s a very clear difference between food sensitivity and food allergy.  The nuance can mean the difference between life and death. Many people experience discomfort, gastric distress, pain, inflammation, congestion, or other symptoms when they eat certain foods, but in most cases this is the result of food sensitivity rather than an outright allergy. While food intolerances can usually be managed relatively easily, food allergies are significantly more severe. A food allergy, when triggered, can cause anything from eczema or numbness to dizziness, fainting, or anaphylaxis. Of the two, only an allergy can ever be fatal.

 

What’s a Food Allergy?

An allergy is like a misplaced immune reaction. A protein, in this case from a food, is mistaken by the immune system for a pathogen, and the system reacts to expel the invader. However, when it comes to food allergies, the immune system often doesn’t know when to stop. It goes on high alert, attacking the body’s own systems, or clogging up the relevant pathways. The resultant swelling can be fatal.

Food allergies are often topical. A protein passes through the mucous membrane of the mouth or throat, into the bloodstream, and a sudden and extreme immune response arrives on the scene. That can cause merely irritating symptoms, like itchiness or numbness, but it can also be extremely painful or life-threatening. If the swelling, especially in the tongue and throat, is severe enough, the airway can close off and a person begins to suffocate. As well, the massive influx takes a huge toll on the body’s support systems, and the metabolic surge itself can cause dizziness or fainting, and significant changes to blood glucose and blood pressure.

That immune reaction can shift gears to autoimmune, too. Food allergies can cause inflammatory conditions like eczema, hives, wheezing, respiratory congestion, cardiac irregularities and stroke. Food allergies symptoms can sometimes be lessened by exposure and medication.  In most cases the best thing to do is to avoid the trigger foods altogether.

 

Food Intolerance and Sensitivity

Unlike a food allergy, a food sensitivity does not directly engage the immune system. The major exception to that is Celiac disease, but in that case the immune response is constrained to the gastrointestinal tract, and a person with Celiac disease is not at risk for anaphylaxis. Hence, despite the technicalities of the underlying mechanisms, Celiac is broadly considered to be a food sensitivity rather than an allergy in the more conventional sense.

Many food sensitivities are caused by a lack of the appropriate digestive enzyme to break down a particular food. Lactose, for example, a protein found in dairy foods, is broken down by lactase. Most people stop producing lactase in mid to late childhood, though there’s a great deal of regional and demographic variance. A person who doesn’t produce lactase will be unable to properly digest lactose without assistance, like taking a synthetic form of the enzyme before consuming the trigger foods, and would therefore suffer from a food sensitivity to any dairy products.

Other food sensitivities have to do with an imbalance in the natural gut flora (the microbiome unique to each individual composed of countless species of bacteria, each of which plays a role in healthy digestion.) Food sensitivities also often develop to artificial additives in processed foods. In particular, many preservatives — hard to break down, by design — cause digestive distress in a large chunk of the population. These could include sulfites, nitrites, or benzoates, among others. Other food sensitivities developed based on the pesticide and other heavy metal toxin load in certain food being too high.  In particular, glyphosate found the most commonly used pesticide binds aggressively to GMO foods such as corn, soy, wheat, and rice along with all animal protein. It is difficult to easily metabolize glyphosate from these foods especially if one’s diet is rich in these items and not balanced adequately by other plant-based foods. Food sensitivities also occur from exposure to too much mercury, arsenic, and lead found in all fish, eggs, poultry, red meat, and dairy products.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome is another chronic condition that can cause sensitivities to a variety of foods. Typically, trigger foods are dense proteins, especially from red meat, poultry, eggs, fish, and dairy products, and dense grains such as wheat, corn, and soy. Foods high in refined sugars, saturated or hydrogenated fats, or salts are also especially common triggers, both for persons with IBS or just sensitive digestive systems in general.

 

Managing Your Diet with Advanced Health

Most food sensitivities are either triggered by especially hard to digest foods, or foods which cause dehydration or inflammation. Avoiding or limiting these is a great way to manage your gut health. As well, supplement your diet with  fermented foods since they are rich in probiotics. Fermented basically means plant-based foods that have been cooked days before consumption. These will included small beans, such as mung beans, red lentils, and dals, presoaked overnight, cooked, and eaten over 2 to 3 days. Other fermented foods include cooked greens such as sauerkraut and kimchi.  Fermented foods nourish your microbiome, increased food satiety and your overall digestive aptitude.

Your diet should include plenty of fresh plant-based fiber in each meal since it will help your digestive system function smoothly.  Make every meal rich in leafy greens, fresh herbs, cruciferous vegetables, legumes, and ancient non-GMO whole grains (not refined into flour).

To satisfy your sweet tooth have the best natural dessert: fruit. Shift away from animal proteins like eggs, red meat, lamb, poultry, fish, and dairy products since they are loaded with heavy metals in today’s agriculture marketplace.  Due to their acidic properties inside of the stomach, animal protein takes from 3 to 7 days to be digested through a person’s alimentary canal. The longer consumed food takes to pass through the digestive tract, the more damage eventually occurs.  The same goes for super acidic drinks like soda, soft drinks, fruit juice, coffee, black tea, and alcohol. They are so harsh to the digestive tract that they should be avoided whenever possible. Instead, choose to have lots of warm water as your beverage of choice since your cells loves water!  

A few small dietary changes could be enough to treat your food sensitivity, so there’s no better time to make an appointment at Advanced Health for a consultation. Our team is ready and able to get you on the path to lifelong wellness, managing or treating food sensitivities or any other gastrointestinal ailments to bring you the relief you’ve been hoping for.

Author
Dr. Payal Bhandari Dr. Payal Bhandari M.D. is a leading practitioner of integrative and functional medicine in San Francisco.

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