What’s the Difference Between Food Allergy and Sensitivity?

April 25, 2012
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The term “food allergy” and “food sensitivity” are thrown around a lot these days. But it’s important to know that these two things are not the same.  In fact, there’s a very big and important difference between the two.

As described by the Food, Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network, a food allergy “occurs when the immune system mistakenly attacks a food protein. Ingestion of the offending food may trigger the sudden release of chemicals, including histamine, which results in an allergic reaction.”

The protein found in food is the most common allergic component. These proteins trigger the formation of an immune cell called IgE (Immunoglubulin E), which “tags” these foods or proteins as allergens and fools the immune system into thinking the person is under attack. The presence of the IgE antibody initiates the counter-reaction in the body in the form of an allergic response.

Symptoms of an allergic food reaction range from mild–rashes, hives, itching, swelling, etc.–to severe, including trouble breathing, wheezing, loss of consciousness, etc. That’s why a food allergy can be potentially fatal, and individuals who know they have severe reactions should carry an EpiPen (injectable epinephrine) at all times, since even the smallest trace of an allergen can trigger an anaphylactic reaction. Medical attention should be sought immediately should an individual show symptoms of anaphylactic shock.

Food sensitivities, on the other hand, trigger a different process in the body. The medical terminology for food intolerance is non-allergic food hypersensitivity, also loosely referred to as food hypersensitivity. Where food allergies tend to produce a very quick and noticeable immune reaction, food sensitivities tend to show less dramatic symptoms that may take longer to develop.

There are different bodily mechanisms that create food hypersensitivities. One common cause is if the body lacks certain enzymes for breaking down food (e.g. the absence of the lactase enzyme will create issues for digesting lactose in milk/dairy).

Food hypersensitivities can also be triggered if there’s an abnormality in the body’s ability to absorb certain nutrients–basically an imbalance in the gut flora (that’s why probiotics are so important!). When there’s something not right in the gut’s mucosal lining, food just won’t be absorbed properly.

Some experts have theorized about a correlation between genetically modified foods (GMOs) and food hypersensitivities. Some of the most common food sensitivities are to foods such as soy, corn and wheat–which make up a large part of the standard American diet–which are also often genetically modified (unless they’re organic). Because of this, I highly recommend buying organic foods whenever possible.

Food sensitivities are often harder to diagnose because of the delayed onset of symptoms and the difficulty in making the association between offending foods and their related clinical symptoms in the body. For example, one person may react to a food hypersensitivity with a skin issue like eczema, and another may have difficult bowel movements. That’s why it’s hard for the person, and even their practitioner, to make the connection.

It’s estimated that between 2-20 percent of the population is afflicted by food sensitivities. (My feeling is that this number is conservative and there are even more underlying sensitivities that exist, but are ignored or mistaken for other health issues.) While food sensitivities usually cause less severe reactions than food allergies, individuals who suffer from chronic sensitivities can experience skin issues (eczema, psoriasis, rashes, hives), respiratory problems (nasal congestion, sinusitis, asthma, cough) or gastrointestinal tract upsets (mouth ulcers, nausea, gas, diarrhea, constipation). In addition, food intolerance has been shown to be linked to irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease and headaches, among other less common symptoms.

If you have experienced any of these conditions on a long-term basis, it may be worth determining whether food sensitivities are playing a role. The best route for quelling symptoms of sensitivity includes avoidance of these foods, and supplementing with digestive enzymes, probiotics and high doses of fish oil. A Pharmaca practitioner can help direct you to the best supplements for your condition.

Kate Brainard attended Bastyr University’s doctorate program in Naturopathic Medicine. She currently manages Pharmaca’s La Jolla store.