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Food allergy or food sensitivity?

Is it a food allergy or sensitivity? It’s easy to get them confused. But they are quite different. And it’s important to understand the difference so you know the right way to test for them and perhaps even more important, what to do about them.

A food allergy is an immune system response. You probably know if you have a food allergy because the reaction is immediate and can sometimes be severe. Think about if your lips or tongue have ever started to swell right after you ate something. Maybe you got a rash or hives. In more severe cases, even anaphylaxis can occur.

A food sensitivity is quite different. This reaction is triggered by the digestive system. But it can show up in many different ways, including headaches, bloating, fatigue, and joint pain. Also different than food allergies, a sensitivity can show up a few days after you’ve eaten it. That can make it difficult to pinpoint what caused the reaction in the first place, unless you’re keeping a detailed food journal or have tried an elimination diet.

So what causes food sensitivities? There is a mucosal barrier in your small intestine that acts to protect you. It has tight junctions with villi and microvilli on the surface. This barrier protects us from pathogens and anything else that doesn’t belong in our system.

Intestinal Mucosal Barrier Anatomy

If you’ve eaten a standard American diet, taken a lot of pharmaceuticals, or have an infection, it can cause degradation of the mucosal barrier. Then things that shouldn’t get into the bloodstream, can get through those tight junctions, otherwise known as “leaky gut”.

Leaky Gut

So foods you’re eating aren’t getting broken down properly, go beyond the protective mucosal lining, and your immune system says, “Hey! What is this?! This shouldn’t be here!” The immune system tags it as a foreign invader and goes after it, and starts creating antibodies. So let’s say you eat an apple that didn’t get broken down the way it should and it gets into the bloodstream. Your immune system will tag it as in invader and the next time you eat it, it will create a reaction and inflammation in the body, because your body thinks it’s the bad guy.

So how do you identify food allergies and sensitivities? If you’re interested in finding allergies, the gold standard is to do a scratch test with an allergist. If you’re looking for sensitivities, there are excellent tests through a functional practitioner that look for the inflammatory reaction that happens in your body every time you consume a certain food. The next step is to stay away from those foods you’re sensitive to for a period of time. It’s not permanent. You just want to give your body a chance to heal before reintroducing them one at a time.

The best part about identifying food sensitivities is seeing clients start to feel better almost immediately after taking those foods out of their diet. Headaches, energy levels, joint pain, and inflammatory conditions improve greatly when we incorporate these findings into their wellness plan. Most people start to feel so good, they don’t miss the foods they’ve taken out. It’s just one part of taking out hidden stressors in your body to allow it to finally start the healing process.

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