Remember your first peanut butter and jelly sandwich? You loved every bite – until the last one, when your throat started closing. Dad took you to the doctor and a test confirmed you were allergic to peanuts (along with bananas, pollen, and cat dander). Heart-broken, you accepted that you’d never again enjoy the taste of that sweet and creamy treat.
You’re not alone on this one. Researchers estimate that up to 15 million Americans have food allergies. So, what’s all this talk about food “intolerance” and food “sensitivity?” Are these other ways of saying you’re allergic to it? Just like leaky gut syndrome and increased intestinal permeability discussed in our most recent blog post, the confusion lies in the terminology.
Allergy vs. Sensitivity vs. Intolerance
Like your precious peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a food allergy pulls no punches. You eat the trigger food – you have a physical reaction. You might love the taste, but your immune system doesn’t. It attacks the proteins in the food, which can cause a range of reactions from a mildly itchy mouth or hives to severe throat tightening or difficulty breathing. In the worst cases, the sudden onset of anaphylaxis, the most serious allergic reaction, can lead to death. Fortunately, a simple skin or blood test showing the presence of IgE (immunoglobulin subclass E) antibodies can diagnose a food allergy.
Food sensitivity, on the other hand, is a bit slyer. Let’s say you just devoured the most delicious swordfish dish at your favorite fine-dining restaurant. A few hours later, you’re feeling a little off. Maybe you have a headache, brain fog, or an upset stomach. This isn’t the first time you felt ill after a meal, but since it only happens now and then, you’ve never bothered to pinpoint what’s causing it. If you did, you might find that you have a food sensitivity to swordfish. This slow immune reaction will show up on a blood test as high levels of IGG (immunoglobulin subclass G) antibodies, which cause inflammation. While your reaction was rather quick, symptoms can appear up to three days after consuming that trigger food. And since they can manifest as vague, non-life-threatening aches and pains, many people don’t associate them with food.
Sometimes, consuming a food doesn’t trigger an immune response, but does send you running for the restroom. In this case, you’re likely dealing with a food intolerance, which won’t show up on a blood test. Because your body lacks the enzyme necessary for proper digestion, that food runs right through you. One of the most common perpetrators is dairy, taking particular aim at the Asian population, with studies showing 90 percent of Asian-Americans are lactose intolerant. Other times, a bacterial imbalance, such as a candida fungal infection on the inside of your intestinal tract can cause bloating and other symptoms with sugar ingestion. Since intolerance can’t be measured with a test, an elimination-rotation diet is often the most successful course of action to identify the trigger.
Don’t Suffer in Silence
Let’s face it. Most of us aren’t eager to talk about our bowel movements or other bodily functions, so instead, we suffer in silence. We pop our antacids or locate the nearest restroom before sitting down for a meal. We live like this for years until those food allergies, sensitivities, and intolerances over-stress our bodies, increase inflammation, boost cortisol levels, and create more serious hormone, weight, and metabolism issues.
With the right tests, a real diagnosis, and a customized diet and exercise program, you can repair your relationship with food. Bon appétit!