Despite the impact proper nutrition has on life expectancy and health, food also has the ability to elicit a negative response due to food sensitivity or food allergies. While some of the symptoms for each may overlap, the body’s immune response is distinctly different.
Our immune system acts as the body’s defense system to protect us from potential invaders and pathogens like bacteria, viruses, parasites, and toxins we may be exposed to in the environment. Unfortunately, the immune system can perceive certain food or food substances as another environmental threat.
Adverse food reactions can be broken down into two subgroups: those with an immune basis (food allergies) and those without an immune basis (food intolerances or sensitivities). We break down the similarities (because there are some!) and differences between the two.
What Is a Food Allergy?
As mentioned, our immune system plays a critical role in protecting us from potential pathogenic invaders. A food allergy occurs when the immune system incorrectly identifies a food substance as a threat and over-responds, triggering a protective response.
Over 90 percent of food allergies are caused by the top 8 allergens: milk, eggs, shellfish, fish, peanuts, tree nuts, soybeans, and wheat. A food allergy can elicit one of three types of immune-mediated responses: IgE, non-IgE, or mixed. IgEs are allergic antibodies that can create a cascade of immediate reactions when they release potent chemicals, like histamines, into circulation. There are also non-IGE mediated food allergies which occur when other parts of the immune system are activated apart from IgE antibodies.
“Over 90 percent of food allergies are caused by the top 8 allergens”
Typically, an allergic reaction will appear within 30 minutes of consuming the triggering food. Symptoms of a food allergy may involve the skin, the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, the cardiovascular system, and the respiratory tract. They can present in a variety of ways such as hives, vomiting or stomach cramps, swelling of the tongue, trouble swallowing, and wheezing.
The most severe type of reaction is known as anaphylaxis and can cause a sudden drop in blood pressure, trouble breathing, dizziness, and in severe cases can be fatal. Currently, there is no cure for food allergies and the most effective treatment is avoidance of the offending food or food substance. Those with severe reactions should always carry an epinephrine pen in case of accidental exposure to the triggering allergen.
What Is Food Sensitivity?
While there may be some overlap in presenting symptoms, it is important to distinguish food allergies from non-immunologic adverse food reactions or sensitivities, which are considerably more common than true food allergies. The definition of food intolerance is a non-immunological response initiated by a food or food component at a dose normally tolerated.
It’s estimated that food sensitivities affect approximately 20 percent of the U.S. population. Generally, food sensitivities are associated with an inability to process or digest a certain food or its components. Examples include lacking a certain enzyme needed to digest a particular food, as is the case with lactose intolerance, or reactions to food additives like sulfites or MSG. While most people are familiar with the typical GI symptoms that come with a food intolerance (think: gas, bloating, cramps, and diarrhea), the effects can actually be more systemic. For example, non-celiac gluten sensitivity can cause brain fog, migraines, joint pain, eczema, and even depression or anxiety.
“It’s estimated that food sensitivities affect approximately 20 percent of the U.S. population.”
While food sensitivities can be hard to pinpoint, there are some strategies you can utilize to help identify the culprit and develop a plan to help control your symptoms. First: Rule out any allergies by working with a healthcare practitioner or allergist to undergo allergy testing. Next: Work with a functional nutritionist or dietitian to complete an elimination diet, which can be incredibly useful in pinpointing any triggering foods. And as always, prioritize eating gut-supporting foods like prebiotic, fiber-rich foods or fermented foods.