Food Allergies and Food Sensitivities – What’s Real?

The foods we eat play a huge role in our health and how we feel – how could they not?!  We are choosing to literally put our favorites foods and drinks into our body where they are broken down into their nutritional building blocks and then used in our body to help us move, think and heal. 

But what happens when your body doesn’t like what you put in it?  Maybe your food choices are a little less than ideal with a lot of refined sugars and highly processed foods, each of which will cause inflammation even in the best of situations.  Or maybe you are choosing whole, quality foods and your body is still telling you there is something wrong. 

Either way, the most important thing here is listening to your body.  And then working to figure out what it is trying to tell you.

At this point, many of us start thinking about food allergies, food sensitivities and food intolerances.  There are a ton of different names for what happens when your body says no to a particular food.

Is there a difference between food allergies, food sensitivities and food intolerances?  Yes and no. 

Ultimately, medicine tries to understand the mechanism of a reaction in the body.  Based on that mechanism, we can classify a reaction and the related symptom.  Medicine likes definitions. 

The mechanism behind food allergies is well-accepted.  You eat a “trouble food”, aka a food to which you are allergic, and your body reacts.  It releases a protein called IgE which is detectable in the blood and you experience symptoms - tingling or burning in or around the mouth, a runny nose, watery eyes, hives (an itchy, splotchy skin rash), diarrhea or, in extreme situations, anaphylaxis.  While these may be common symptoms, it is important to keep in mind that literally every body may react differently.    (Which is why it is so important to listen to your body!)  You can be allergic to any food, but most folks will be allergic to one of the top nine food allergens: milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, peanuts, tree nuts, soy, wheat and sesame. 

The mechanism behind food intolerances is also pretty well-accepted.  Here we are talking specifically about conditions like Celiac disease, lactose intolerance and others.  In these situations, your body either doesn’t have the enzyme needed to fully break down a food component, like the lactose sugar in milk, and your body complains or, as in Celiac, the condition is an autoimmune reaction caused by a particular food component.  These become very individualized conditions because the mechanism of each may be a little different, but they all fit into the same category because your body doesn’t tolerate a particular trouble food for one reason or another.

That leaves food sensitivities.  And this is the tricky one.  Those of us with food sensitivities have symptoms very similar to those of food allergies above (except for anaphylaxis), and perhaps many others, but don’t test positive for allergies or intolerances.  And if the test is negative, medicine seems to be at a loss to help us feel better.  Does that mean the symptoms are all in your head?  Absolutely not!  It simply means we don’t fit into a definition.  That’s it.

And I’m a firm believer that none of us are here to fit into any definition.  We are all unique.  Each one of us knows when something is wrong in our body.  We know when we are sensitive to a particular food item…or that we have an issue and need to do some sleuthing to figure out the trigger. 

And that is true self-care.  Learning about the unique needs and preferences of your body and your mind and your spirit…and then acting on those, regardless of what the rest of the world may think. 

Sixty-Second Self-Care Tip...

Have you ever thought you might have food allergies or sensitivities?  It’s definitely something to discuss with your healthcare provider.  As always, I highly recommend you prepare for any conversation about what you’re feeling and experiencing in your body – put down on paper how you’re feeling (symptoms and emotions), when it started, any triggers, what makes it better or worse, what your suspicions are, and why you suspect something like food allergies or food sensitivities.  Write down your questions so you don’t forget them.  

And know that you can always go, ask questions, get answers and a tentative treatment plan and then go home and think on it.  Think of healthcare providers as your navigators on this journey.  But you drive the bus. 

And if you’re thinking you may have some trouble foods in your life, check out my *free resource* that will help you find some of the “other” names for some common trouble food on food labels.  You’ll turn into a trouble food detective in less than five minutes!!


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60-second self-care, definitions, food allergies, food choices, food intolerances, food sensitivities, self-care


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