Demystifying Food Allergies, Sensitivities and Intolerances

By Dr. Bronwyn Hill, ND

“You are what you eat”, and for many people – what you eat might be disagreeing with you on a number of levels.  Food sensitivities are a hot topic, and I thought it would be insightful to share some information that helps everyone understand the subject a bit better.

So allergies, sensitivities and intolerances – what does it all mean and what is the difference? It comes down to antibodies vs. enzymes. Antibodies are important proteins that help our immune system recognize self from non-self, and take care of unwelcome invaders like bacteria and viruses. We all have a few types of antibodies, and each of them help to mount a specific immune response. Food allergies and sensitivities are caused by antibody responses. Antibody IgE is the cause for immediate type allergies; it triggers the release of histamine and results in classic allergy symptoms like itchy, watery eyes, hives, and more seriously, anaphylaxis.

Food sensitivities are totally different than allergies, as they are caused by antibody IgG. IgG is responsible for mounting a delayed-type immune reaction which occurs once the system has been sensitized to an invader or food protein. This type of delayed-response is the culprit behind common auto-immune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and thyroiditis in which the immune system begins to inappropriately attack self vs. non-self. Delayed immune reactions can occur anywhere from 36 hours to 7 days after being exposed to a “trigger”; hence they can be pretty hard to pin down and identify the cause!

Food sensitivities mediated by IgG release can be a big underlying cause for a lot of health conditions and otherwise unexplainable symptoms. This is basically because food sensitivities cause inflammation, and over time inflammation is perceived as a stressor by the body. When we are under stress, we increase the release of cortisol, which causes blood sugar imbalances, and other hormonal craziness that can manifest as a wide-range of physical symptoms.  In short, the immune response triggered by a food sensitivity and the hormonal chaos that comes after can contribute to:

  • Digestive concerns (IBS, pain, bloating constipation, inflammatory bowel disease)
  • Migraines
  • Fatigue and mood imbalances
  • Joint Pain & arthritis
  • Skin conditions such as eczema, psoriasis and acne
  • Difficulty losing weight
  • Respiratory concerns such as asthma, allergies and sinusitis
  • Behavioral concerns like ADD, ADHD and autism

Totally different from food allergies and sensitivities are food intolerances – these are due to enzyme deficiencies.  Enzymes are used in thousands of reactions throughout the body to metabolize or breakdown chemicals, toxins and nutrients.  A common example of food intolerance would be to lactose, in which the individual is lacking the enzyme lactase. The result of consuming dairy products for these folks is unpleasant to say the least.  Intolerances can be very specific or more general; depending on a deficiency of one or several digestive enzymes. Once identified intolerances can be corrected by avoiding the offending food(s) and/or supplementing with particular digestive enzymes.

How can I determine if I have a Food Allergy, Sensitivity or Intolerance?

This is the next big part of the puzzle!

First off, consider working with a Naturopathic Doctor to decipher what your symptoms really mean. Allergies, sensitivities and intolerances can all co-exist, but a trained professional can help identify what is what and how to best proceed. I find that most people are already aware or have been tested for allergies and intolerances; but sensitivities are more of a mystery.

Testing for food sensitivities is now widely available and increasingly popular in the Naturopathic field.  Testing measures blood IgG levels in response to various foods and environmental allergens. Rocky Mountain Labs is a well-reputed company that offers non-invasive food sensitivity testing (this is the lab I work with at both of my practices).  The following presentation from the lab contains more in-depth info on food sensitivities and the testing they offer:–RMA_2.pdf

In my clinical experience, this testing has been very insightful when used correctly but the results have to be taken with a grain of salt.  The testing cannot take the place of a good functional approach to improving gut health and immunity nor is it always 100% accurate!

In my opinion, the best way to identify sensitivities and improve health overall is by way of an elimination diet or hypoallergenic diet.  This is definitely more labour-intensive than the testing discussed above, but it really is a beautiful way to combine diagnosis and treatment in one effort.  A Naturopathic doctor can help guide you through the process, in which all common food allergens are avoided or eliminated for roughly 3 weeks. The elimination phase is followed by the reintroduction of foods one at a time, and symptoms are tracked to assess your response.  I have seen this type of diet hugely benefit those with gastro-intestinal disturbances (including IBS & inflammatory bowel disease), migraines, fatigue, and menstrual concerns – which is demonstrative of the link between these symptoms and possible food sensitivities.

In any case, if you suspect that food is not agreeing with you – whether it be an allergy, sensitivity or intolerance – there are solutions for both identifying the problem and feeling better. I can help determine what testing is best for you, and how you can use the results to resolve your health concerns!

I hope that this information has been insightful and useful! Please get in touch with your questions!