Food Allergies vs Food Sensitivities

After eating you feel nauseous. You are counting down the minutes to change into sweatpants because you are SO bloated, or you go days between bowel movements.

And your gut isn’t the only thing that’s bothering you. You may feel like you’re ready for a nap after 2pm, have aching in your joints, or get headaches or migraines. Your skin may break out or you may have eczema. You know that what you eat affects how you feel, but you can’t seem to figure out WHAT FOOD it could possibly be. You’ve tried taking out gluten or dairy, or tried a cleanse. But, you’re still feeling like dirt.

You may have heard of food allergies, but what you probably don’t know is there’s a difference between an
allergy and a sensitivity. Let’s break it down. 

Food Allergy

Food allergies cause a histamine response, which can lead to swelling, rashes, hives, or breathing problems. Think Benadryl, epi-pens, and hospitals.

Testing: You’re looking for what’s called an “IgE” test. This can be a blood test or skin prick test, and it’s the test that most MD’s and Allergists run if you ask them to test for food allergies. (Your naturopathic doctor can test your blood for IgE allergies too). We often test this for kids with new food reactions, because they can be serious and usually pop up in childhood. Most adults know if they’re allergic to foods (think peanuts, eggs, or dairy allergies).


Food Sensitivity

For lower level, non life-threatening reactions to food, you’ll want to learn about food sensitivities. Food sensitivities stem from a totally different branch of the immune system. Symptoms can be delayed up to 72 hours, so it can be hard to identify the culprit. Food sensitivities can come and go, or cause long term low level inflammation.

Testing: This is a blood test, and can either be done with a finger prick (great for kiddos) or a blood draw. I use the Alletess IgG food sensitivity test. You can test 96 or 184 foods and see what your body may be reacting to. 

This lab can show what foods may be making your immune system ramp up. But, I have to be honest: it’s not a perfect test. It can totally miss foods you KNOW you can’t eat without suffering, or can OVERestimate your food reactions. But if removing foods from your diet seems totally overwhelming and you have NO clue where to start, this test is an option.

ELIMINATION AND RECHALLENGE DIET

A lab will not be able to tell you what your body can. This is why the only true way to know your food sensitivities is to do what’s called an elimination and rechallenge diet

What’s that?

You’ll remove ALL of the foods that people commonly react to for a period of time (usually 2-4 weeks) to reduce overall inflammation and clear the slate. (side bonus: you’ll feel much better during this cleansing time!) Then, you’ll add each food back in, one at a time, and see what happens. 

There will be food journaling. You’ll get to know your digestive system intimately. You’ll be doing a LOT of food prep, you’ll say no to eating out, and you’ll bring your lunch to work every day. Not going to lie, it’s an intensive process you’ll need to prepare for.

Common Offenders:
gluten, dairy, eggs, soy, corn, nuts, vinegar, yeast, red meat, alcohol, shellfish, sulfur rich veggies, beans, and citrus. 

This doesn’t mean that you won’t react to other foods not on this list, and it also doesn’t mean that you’ll react to all foods in one category. For example, some people do OK with hard cheese but get stomach pain when they drink a glass of milk. Some people get migraines with aged foods like hard cheeses, but are headache free with mozzarella and other dairy. 

Every body is different, and this whole confusing process will bring you closer to understanding what foods FUEL you, and what foods are dragging you down. And, it’s not the end-all- be-all  to what you can and cannot eat forever. It’s just what’s true right now. 

 

To reverse food sensitivities and really heal your gut, you’ll need to combine all of the info you’ve gathered with a gut healing protocol. When you repair your gut lining, the food sensitivities become less of a problem. More on this in upcoming blogs

 

The best way to start an elimination diet is with a cleanse like my 7 Day Cleanse program. This helps reset your cravings and gets you started on eliminating the most common food allergies while receiving ongoing support and encouragement. 

Author
Dr. Caitlin Fanning Dr. Caitlin Fanning, ND, is a naturopathic doctor and women’s health specialist at Pacific Coast Integrative Health in Santa Cruz, California. She provides compassionate and comprehensive care to patients of all ages and conditions with a focus on women’s health, hormone health, nutrition, stress management, fertility, and preconception care.

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