What Are Food Sensitivities? How Are They Different from Food Intolerances and Food Allergies? Dr. Jennifer Yee explains:
The terms “food sensitivities”, “food intolerances”, and “food allergies” are often used interchangeably but there are differences.
Food intolerances involve the reduced ability to digest certain types of foods with the most common being lactose intolerance. Our body produces a digestive enzyme, lactase, which is needed to digest lactose, a type of sugar found in dairy products. Many people lack the ability to produce sufficient amounts of lactase which leads to more lactose accumulating in the digestive system. This can cause uncomfortable symptoms such as bloating, gassiness, inflammation, and changes in bowel movements.
Food allergies occur when the body’s immune system has an inappropriate response to a typically harmless food, such as peanuts or shellfish. This reaction usually happens rapidly (within a few minutes) and can range from mild to potentially life-threatening if it affects breathing or blood pressure. Food allergies can develop at any age but are most commonly identified during childhood.
Food sensitivities are reactions from eating certain foods that are not related to food intolerances or food allergies. Consuming certain foods can cause a non-life threatening immune reaction within the body that can cause a wide variety of symptoms which can occur quickly or can be delayed (up to several days later). These can include digestive symptoms but also a wide range of other symptoms including joint pain, skin reactions, headaches, brain fog, fatigue, mood changes, and a worsening of a pre-existing health condition (e.g. arthritis, eczema, etc). Food sensitivities can appear at any age and can fluctuate in severity or disappear entirely. They are influenced by dietary habits as well as the health of a person’s digestive and immune system – aspects of health that naturopathic doctors can help support.
How Can Food Sensitivities Be Identified and Addressed?
Some people may already suspect they have certain food sensitivities – “When I eat wheat, I feel so bloated afterwards”. For others, keeping a diet diary and symptom journal can be useful to identify some food sensitivities; however, because food sensitivities can vary in severity depending on the amounts of the food consumed and also have a delayed reaction (up to several days later), food triggers can be challenging to identify with a diet diary alone, since symptoms may be inconsistent.
A naturopathic doctor may recommend a specific type of diet called a hypoallergenic or elimination diet, where certain types of foods are eliminated for several weeks. During the elimination, people typically notice an improvement in their symptoms because they are no longer consuming foods that aggravate their system. After the elimination phase, foods are re-introduced one at a time while monitoring for any negative effects on the body. This will help identify specifically which foods are trigger foods and which ones are not.
For some people, an elimination diet may be too challenging, time consuming or inconvenient. At Vive, we offer food sensitivity blood testing that can identify food triggers by measuring the levels of certain immune cells (called immunoglobulins) that are produced against specific foods. If these levels are elevated, they indicate a sensitivity to that specific food or food protein. With these results, a dietary plan can be tailored specifically to the patient and no foods have to be eliminated from the diet unnecessarily. Many patients will notice symptoms improve once their trigger foods (as indicated by their food sensitivity test results) are removed from their diet.
Regardless of which assessment approach is chosen, supplements, herbals, and other naturopathic treatments can help support further digestive repair and immune re-balancing, which can reduce the severity of food intolerances. The ultimate goal is for the person to be able to return to eating trigger foods but without any negative reactions, essentially reversing the food intolerances.