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Are these allergies, or sensitivities?

Pharmacists' hands

It has never been so easy to find niche food items and unique products as it is today.

Walking through the aisles of the grocery story you will see labels exemplifying the customer demand – gluten-free, dairy-free, nitrate-free, egg-free, sugar-free, caffeine-free, preservative-free, and so on. The public is asking, and the food industry is listening.

With public outcry comes the development of new foods, and likewise, with these new food items comes a lot of discussion. There’s a lot of talk these days about the unpleasant and potentially dangerous reactions our bodies are having to various foods. People want to know if they have a food allergy or food sensitivity. Many wonder what these terms mean, and what the consequences are of having an issue with a particular food.

Adverse food reactions are becoming increasingly common, and teasing out the specifics behind them can seem confusing. The terms food allergy and food sensitivity are frequently used interchangeably, however, they are quite different.

Food Allergy

A food allergy is an immediate reaction to a specific food and can be life-threatening. Food allergies trigger Immunoglobulin E (IgE), an immune antibody that binds to food particles creating a histamine reaction. Smelling, inhaling, or ingesting even a microscopic particle of the food can trigger an immune response.

When first exposed to the food, symptoms may be extremely mild or non-existent, but this initial contact primes the body to respond more intensely next time, leading to potentially dangerous symptoms including anaphylaxis, or closure of the throat. Allergic reactions typically occur in the nose, throat, lungs, skin, and gastrointestinal tract.

Common symptoms of a food allergy can include:

  • Itching inside the mouth

  • Swelling of the lips and tongue

  • Hives

  • Trouble breathing

  • Gastrointestinal symptoms (vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal cramps, pain)

Food Sensitivity

Food sensitivities are low-grade and chronic reactions to specific foods. They stimulate Immunoglobulin G (IgG), a different type of immune response than that of a food allergy. Symptoms may present immediately, or take up to 48 hours to develop. Food sensitivities are not life-threatening at the time of ingestion; however, they can be detrimental to your daily health and wellbeing, potentially leading to harmful long-term health issues.

It is important to note that you can develop a sensitivity to any food. Some of the more commonly reactive foods include dairy, wheat, soy, and eggs.

There are a wide range of symptoms associated with food sensitivities, including:

  • Digestive complaints (bloating, gas, burping, heartburn, diarrhea, constipation)

  • Headaches & Migraines

  • Restless legs

  • Skin conditions (Eczema, Psoriasis, Acne)

  • Memory loss

  • Mental fogginess

  • Inability to focus

  • Anxiety/Depression

  • Fatigue

Long-Term Effects of Food Sensitivities

If left untreated, food sensitivities can worsen, leading to more serious issues such as weight gain, chronic inflammation & pain, immune system weakness, susceptibility to parasitic infections, symptoms of depression or anxiety, and lingering fatigue.

A food sensitivity can develop at any point in life. Development may be the result of many factors including stress, detoxification issues, overconsumption of a particular food, poor digestion, and genetics.

The good news is that you can treat food sensitivities. They do not necessarily have to be a permanent affliction. There are 2 main ways of assessing for food sensitivities:

  • Elimination Diet – This involves the removal of a specific list of foods from the diet for a set period of time. The eliminated foods are then reintroduced systematically to see which cause symptoms. This assessment can be extremely useful as it gives information about troublesome foods and the specific symptoms each one causes for that individual. This process requires genuine commitment of both time and willpower, but can be well worth the effort.

  • Finger Prick Blood Testing – This involves a laboratory test that analyzes the patient’s blood for the IgG antibodies associated with food sensitivities. A few drops of blood are all that’s needed for this in-office lab test. This test can be extremely helpful for an individual who doesn’t have the time, or level of commitment, to do the Elimination diet.

As with many lab tests, it is possible to acquire false positives or false negatives, but this can be dramatically reduced by using high-quality testing. The lab results should be analyzed by a health professional, such as a Naturopathic Doctor, as they can guide you effectively on how to eliminate the offending foods and heal the gut lining - often resolving some or all of the food sensitivities completely.

It is important to note that positive responses on food sensitivity lab testing can be due to further underlying issues, such as stress hormone imbalance and impaired detoxification pathways.

Properly addressing all aspects of your health will lead to the absolute best results.

If you suspect you may have a food allergy or a food sensitivity, talk to a trusted health professional to get the proper assessment and testing. Having an expert guide you through the process of discovering what foods negatively affect how you feel, can take out the guess-work and motivate you to find the answers you need.

A true food allergy can be immediately life-threatening and requires the appropriate precautions in order to manage a reaction efficiently, safely, and effectively. Food sensitivities can have major effects on the body, both physically and mentally. Identifying and removing offending foods, and healing any impaired body systems can make a profound difference in how you feel. This can be life-changing for people. Remember, small changes lead to big rewards in your life, and your vitality each day.

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Dr. Nicola Kempinska BKin, BA, ND is a licensed Naturopathic Doctor located in Burlington, Ontario. Dr. Kempinska practices Family Medicine, with a special interest in Anti-Aging Medicine & Longevity, Women’s Health, and Pain Management.

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