June 30, 2020

Food Allergies versus Food Sensitivities

Food has an enormous impact on health and how a person reacts to different foods can play a role in causing disease or contributing to symptoms.  Many patients come to see one of our Naturopathic Doctors at Vive Integrative Health Group with concerns of whether what they may be eating could be causing or contributing to their ailments.  In many instances, we help patients determine if food sensitivities are a concern in order to make better recommendations on food plans and nutrient requirements.

Food Sensitivities are not the same as Food Allergies

A common misconception is that food sensitivities are the same as food allergies.  They are not!  Food allergies are those that present with typical ‘anaphylatic’ reaction symptoms such as ones we think of associated with peanut allergies – hives, swelling and breathing difficulties.  Food allergies are typically triggered immediately after eating the offending food and causes the release of IgE antibodies. This in turn causes the release of histamine and other substances that cause anaphylactic symptoms. IgE antibodies to foods can be detected in the blood, but only shows how likely a reaction is to occur and not the severity of the reaction.1

Food sensitivities are also known as ‘delayed hypersensitivity’ reactions and symptoms may not become apparent for days after ingestion.  Symptoms associated with food sensitivities are not as severe or life-threatening but can create significant issues including indigestion (gas, bloating, acid reflux2), irritable bowel syndrome3,4, migraine headaches5,6, weight gain7, etc.  Certain foods may cause IgG antibodies to be created, which form antigen-antibody complexes.  Normally, the immune system can remove these complexes but if these complexes accumulate, they deposit in tissue and promote inflammation.

Here is a summary chart on the differences between Food Allergies and Food Sensitivities.

 Food AllergiesFood Sensitivities
Common Symptoms– Hives, swelling, low blood pressure, breathing difficulties
– Inflammatory conditions, indigestion, IBS, migraine headaches, weight gain, fatigue, skin rashes (eczema, psoriasis)

Causes of Symptoms– IgE antibodies causes mast cells to release histamine and other substances
– Immune complexes comprised of food antigens and IgG antibodies – if they are not cleared from the body, causes inflammation

Onset of Symptoms

– Symptoms appear quickly immediately after ingesting food

– Symptoms are slow to appear and can take days to develop

Amount of food required to trigger a reaction

– Small amount of food can trigger a reaction– Eating more of the food increases the number of immune complexes
How long symptoms last
– Symptoms generally resolve fairly quickly, within hours

– Symptoms of inflammation can persist for months

Treatment approach
– Complete avoidance of food; appropriately treat anaphylactic reaction; explore desensitization treatment options

– Temporary avoidance of food; properly manage inflammation; support and heal the digestive tract and immune system

Identifying Food Sensitivities

Food sensitivities can be identified in one of two ways.  The traditional food elimination process is one way.  Your Naturopathic Doctor will provide guidance as to which foods you should avoid and for the how long.  After a time, many symptoms will resolve, and foods may be reintroduced back into the diet one at a time.  A reappearance of symptoms indicates a potential food sensitivity.

A quicker (and often easier) way to identify food sensitivities is through a blood IgG test. Using a test from a reputable laboratory, your Naturopathic Doctor can identify an exaggerated immune response to a wide variety of foods.  With this information in hand, we can craft a diet best suited to reducing inflammation and supporting your recovery.


Food sensitivities differ from food allergies in many ways.  If you suspect food sensitivities may be playing a role in your health concerns, reach out to one of our knowledgeable Naturopathic Doctors. Together we can create an individualized plan to manage your symptoms and address underlying issues.  

~ Dr. Patti


1.  Sicherer SH, Sampson HA. Food Allergy. J Allergy Clin Immunol. Vol. 125.No. 2 (2010): S116-125.

2. Zuo XL, Li YQ, Li YJ et al. Alterations of food antigen-specific serum immunoglobulins G and E antibodies in patients with irritable bowel syndrome and functional dyspepsia. Clin Exper Allergy. Vol. 37 (2007): 823-30.

3. Atkinson W, Sheldon TA, Shaath N et al. Food elimination based on IgG antibodies in irritable bowel syndrome: a randomized controlled trial. Gut. Vol. 53 (2004): 1459–1464.

4. Drisko J, Bischoff B, Hall M et al. Treating Irritable Bowel Syndrome with a Food Elimination Diet Followed by Food Challenge and Probiotics. JACN Vol. 25.No. 6 (2006): 514-22.

5. Alpay K, Ertas M, Orhan EK et al. Diet restriction in migraine, based on IgG against foods: A clinical double-blind, a randomized cross-over trial. Cephalalgia Vol. 30.No. 7 (2010): 829-37.

6. Arroyave-Hernandez CM, Pinto ME, Hernandez Montiel HL. Food allergy mediated by IgG antibodies associated with migraine in adults. Revista Alergia Mexico Vol. 54.No. 5 (2007): 162-8.

7. Lewis JE, Woolger JM, Mellilo A, et al. Eliminating Immunologically-Reactive Foods from the Diet and its Effect on Body Composition and Quality of Life in Overweight Persons. J Obes Weig los Ther Vol. 2.No. 1 (2012): 1-6.

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