What is the Difference between a Food Sensitivity and Allergy?
First things first, we need to know the difference between food allergies and food sensitivities.
Why should we care?
Well, coping with one or the other requires two very different approaches, because as you will see, they are two very distinct reactions fuelled by unique causes.
In this article we will discuss primarily food sensitivities, which are reactions that are actually more insidious for a few reasons. Food allergic reactions are usually more obvious, while food sensitivities are not so much.
Food allergies involve an immune system response to specific proteins present in certain foods. When someone with a food allergy ingests or comes into contact with the allergenic food, their immune system identifies the protein as harmful and this triggers an immediate immune response.
The IgE antibody response can range from mild to severe and may result in immediate symptoms, such as hives, swelling, itching, digestive issues, respiratory problems, or even anaphylaxis—a severe and potentially life-threatening reaction.
Common food allergens include peanuts, tree nuts, shellfish, fish, eggs, milk, soy, and wheat. Food allergies are typically diagnosed through skin prick tests, blood tests, or oral food challenges.
Food sensitivities, also known as food intolerances, are adverse reactions to certain foods that cause a different reaction in the body. Unlike food allergies, food sensitivities do not trigger an immediate response but trigger other antibodies (IgG) and cause the body to react as if there were an internal threat.
Instead, symptoms may appear gradually and persist over time, making them harder to pinpoint.
This is why functional health coaches are kind of like detectives - we have to figure out the cause of your symptoms!
The causes of food sensitivities may be due to factors such as enzyme deficiencies (e.g., lactose intolerance), chemical components in foods (e.g., histamines or sulfites), or sensitivities to certain food additives.
Common symptoms of food sensitivities include digestive issues (e.g., bloating, gas, diarrhea), headaches, skin rashes, joint pain, and fatigue. Food sensitivities are issues that begin (and end - get it?) in the digestive system.
Food sensitivities are typically discovered through food sensitivity testing (which I do with my clients ) or elimination diets, where specific foods are removed from the diet and reintroduced systematically to identify trigger foods.
After healing the gut and eliminating the food, we sometimes also systematically re-introduce the offending foods. This allows us to isolate and determine if there are any specific symptoms to the offending food
It's important to note that food allergies can be life-threatening, requiring strict avoidance of the allergenic food, while food sensitivities typically result in milder symptoms and may only require moderation or avoidance of the offending food, depending on the severity of the sensitivity and how well the body heals.
But interestingly, in either case it is possible to have a normal life with a healthy diet .
Root Causes of Food Sensitivity
According to functional medicine specialists, the top root causes of food sensitivities are:
Diet (high in refined sugars, processed foods, preservative and chemicals can increase gut permeability)
Oxidative stress - can break down the gut microbiome weakening the immune system.
Toxins and medications (antibiotics, NSAIDS, birth control pills, and other medications can cause other symptoms including nutrient deficiencies which can cause other downstream effects and can weaken the immune system response)
Lifestyle factors (ie: smoking weakens the immune system)
Gut conditions and imbalances (ie: IBS, SIBO, yeast overgrowth, etc.)
And the great news? These are all factors we can do something about!
We have the power to change - particularly with the knowledge and support of a coach. And with food sensitivities, there is a likelihood that with the right treatment you might be able to consume the offending foods again.
Working with a Food Sensitivity
In functional medicine, once we have identified the food sensitivity, we use the 5Rs to work on the healing process:
Remove the offending food from diet
Replace the gut environment by focusing on proper gut functioning
Reinoculate the system by building healthy bacteria
Repair the integrity of the gut lining (which has for years been weakened by exposure)
Rebalance the whole body health, including stress, sleep, diet, and exercise
This is a process, and you won’t see results overnight. But the idea is that when you do see results - and you will - they are long-lasting or permanent.
A functional medicine health coach is there to help you figure out where the problem is coming from and then also determine the best course of action. Together. It’s an empowering journey.
Let’s dive deeper into any symptoms you’ve been having, and discuss your health goals in a Discovery Session. There’s no better time to go from normal to optimal.
I look forward to meeting you!
In good health,