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Allergies, Sensitivities and Intolerances: What’s the Difference?

There is a lot of confusion about the differences between allergies, sensitivities and intolerances. Often these three words are used interchangeably, however they are the result of very different processes within the body.

Food Intolerances

When you have a food intolerance, the reaction is triggered by the digestive system. Often it is because the body cannot produce enough of one or many enzymes critical to the breakdown and absorption of a certain nutrient. Though intolerances can result in discomfort and many unpleasant symptoms, they are not life threatening and can be managed with supplementation in many cases. A well-known example of a food intolerance is lactose intolerance. In this condition, the body can’t digest lactose (due to a missing enzyme), which causes bloating, diarrhea and intestinal cramping.

If you have a food intolerance, you may be able to eat small amounts of the offending food without experiencing symptoms. You may also be able to prevent a reaction by making alterations to your diet (e.g., drink lactose-free milk) or taking enzyme supplements (e.g., lactase enzyme pills) to aid digestion.

Immune Reactions

Your immune system is your body’s defense against invaders like bacteria, fungus, or the common cold. Both allergies and sensitives are the result of your immune system identifying a protein in what you eat as an invader and reacting by producing antibodies to fight it. It is important to understand the difference between the mechanism of action behind each one so you can manage them properly.

Allergies

Most people are familiar with the concept of allergies where antigen exposure causes an immediate, and often times severe, reaction such as rashes, hives, and anaphylaxis. The immediate nature of these reactions is due to an immunoglobulin E (IgE) reaction to the antigen. The body recognizes the antigen as a foreign body and overreacts, getting to work to remove the invader as soon as possible.

There are eight foods that account for 90% of all allergic reactions: dairy, eggs, fish, shellfish, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, and soybeans.

Sensitivities

Food sensitivities, on the other hand, are non-IgE mediated immune reactions, most commonly due to an immunoglobulin G (IgG) reaction. IgG reactions take hours to days to develop after ingestion of a food antigen, making reactions very difficult to uncover without testing. IgG reactions result in tissue inflammation and are more frequently associated with chronic conditions.

Some of the most common symptoms associated with food sensitivities are indigestion, diarrhea/constipation, headaches, bloating, chronic sinus congestion, fatigue and acne. This type of immune response is generally not life-threatening.

Talk to Your Health Care Professional

If you’re experiencing any of the symptoms listed above, it’s likely a good idea to consult your health care provider. There are lab tests available to help identify the cause of your symptoms and chronic inflammation left untreated has been linked to a myriad of adverse health conditions.

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