Food Allergy vs. Food Sensitivity

Food sensitivities have received quite a bit of hype lately. I’d like to take some time to explain the differences between a food allergy and a food sensitivity, because they both effect your health in very different ways.  A food allergy is when the immune system responds almost instantly to food we eat causing hives, shortness of breath, swelling of tongue and throat. This is also knowns as anaphylaxis and we see it often associated with nut consumption or a bee sting. A food sensitivity, also known as a food intolerance, is when the immune system recognizes a piece of undigested food as foreign and responds to it as if it were an intruder like it would a virus or bacteria. Symptoms of food sensitivity include: asthma, frequent ear infections, colic, constipation/diarrhea, atopic dermatitis, or even autism in children. In adults a food sensitivity can cause acne, headaches/migraines, abdominal pain, irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel syndrome, eczema, depression, brain fog, heartburn, among others things.

There are a few theories as to why food sensitivities are on the rise:

– New parents are introducing solid foods to their infant much sooner than is recommended. An infant’s immune system and digestive tract are not fully developed until at least 5 years of age. It is incredibly important to introduce food that are common triggers until later in the development of the immune system and digestive tract to prevent the development of intolerances. One of the most  common first foods to introduce to children is cheerios or cooked pasta noodles, both are full of gluten which is a common food sensitivity.
– Another theory is the amount of genetically modified foods found in our diet. Unfortunately, genetic modification is not a precise procedure. When the DNA of plants is tampered with, the plant begins to produce completely new proteins and compounds unknown to our digestive system. The introduction of genetically modified foods is quite recent, too recent for our digestive systems to have evolved effective processes to digest and absorb these new compounds. And too recent for our immune systems to have evolved successful coping mechanisms.

– Yet another theory is the high amount of inflammation we have in our bodies as a result of our diets, medications, intense athletic training, among other things. When the digestive tract is inflamed, the junctions that link the cells of our digestive tract together become loose. This is sometimes referred to as ‘leaky gut’. Increased gut permeability leads to absorption of undigested proteins which our immune system then tags as foreign.

The reality of the situation is, perhaps, a combination of all three.

How do you know if you have a food sensitivity? The quickest and easiest way to determine if you have a food sensitivity is getting a blood spot test done. It involves a finger prick, like testing your blood sugar levels with a glucometer. The harder way is also known as an elimination diet. The most common food sensitivities are removed from your diet and after 3-4wks, these foods are added back in one at a time so you can attribute any returning symptoms to a specific food. The most common food sensitivities I have seen include: gluten, yeast, dairy, tomatoes, corn, soy and sugar.

Once you discover which foods are triggering your symptoms, remove them from your diet. Within a week you will see a noticeable difference! With the trigger(s) gone from your diet it is now important to heal your digestive system, and get your immune system back on track so that one day you may be able to introduce the offending foods back into your diet. To do this, there are various supplements you can use. Probiotics help to repopulate your intestine with healthy bacteria. Bacteria actually help to break down our food, and act as the first line of defense against pathogens in the intestine. Soothing herbs, either as a tincture, capsule or tea, can help to relieve inflammation and improve bowel movements. L-glutamine is another option. This amino acid is the main fuel for the cells that line the intestinal tract, therefore ensuring proper cell turnover and healthy cell development.  Don’t forget to consume sufficient quantities of fiber! These are just a few supplements that can be used to heal the gastrointestinal tract from aggravating foods and inflammation. Please note that it is important to see a naturopathic doctor before you start taking supplements to ensure they don’t interact with any medications you are on or medical conditions you currently have. While supplements are natural, they can be dangerous if taken incorrectly. Some supplements also contain additives as preservatives or binders that may aggravate your symptoms.