Demystifying Food Allergies, Sensitivities and Intolerances

By Bronwyn Hill, Naturopathic Doctor

Part One

“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 our own tissues. 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.

Stay tuned to next week’s posting when I will explain how we determine individual food sensitivities, and how key nutrients, herbs and dietary changes can minimize the effects that sensitivities, allergies and intolerances have on our bodies.