Today, food intolerance and food allergy are two terms that are often used interchangeably. A food sensitivity takes place in the digestive system, while a true food allergy is an immune response. While some symptoms of food intolerance and an allergy are similar, it is important to understand the differences between the two.
What is a food allergy, anyway?
Allergies are classified as an overreaction of the body’s immune system to certain proteins. Most commonly, foods that contain gluten, nuts, fish, shellfish, eggs, certain fruits or vegetables or even food dyes. If someone is truly allergic, even a small amount of the allergy-inducing food can cause symptoms like itchy throat, lips, tongue or skin rash, but can be even more severe like closed airways (anaphylaxis), which can be life-threatening.
What about a food intolerance?
If you’ve ever eaten a food that consistently causes a reaction like an upset stomach, headache or noticeable fatigue, you may have a food intolerance. Unlike a food allergy, an intolerance is not an immune response, but rather a response from the digestive system- and occurs when your body is not able to properly break down certain compounds in food. This can occur for several reasons, such as enzyme deficiencies or sensitivities to food additives. While a food intolerance can cause you to feel ill or uncomfortable, it is not life-threatening.
What should I do if I suspect I have an allergy or sensitivity?
If you suspect you have a food allergy, it is best to contact your doctor as soon as you start noticing symptoms (swollen or tingling sensation in the tongue or lips after eating, skin rash, etc.). An allergist will be able to give the most accurate diagnoses and provide treatment as well as avoidance strategies for your food allergy.
If you think you are simply sensitive to a certain food, there are a couple different strategies to take. The first option would be to simply avoid the food you believe you are sensitive to. However, some “elimination diets” can lack nutritionally and can feel restricting. In some cases, food sensitivities can be reversed- or at least find ways to minimize their symptoms. As mentioned previously, food intolerances can often be a result of lacking adequate amounts of digestive enzymes. If the gut is not producing enough enzymes, we will have a difficult time breaking down certain foods and can cause symptoms like bloat, diarrhea, and stomach pain.
To encourage digestive enzyme production, you can begin by regularly consuming foods that are naturally rich in enzymes, such as papayas, pineapple, honey, sauerkraut, kefir and ginger. You can also supplement with a spore-based probiotic, which encourages good gut-bacteria in your digestive system to help break down food properly. In time, by taking measures to improve gut health, you may begin slowly introducing these foods back into your diet in small amounts.