If you’re lucky, you can gobble up any food you like without concern about allergies, sensitivities, or intolerances. For some people, consuming the wrong foods or drinks can result in uncomfortable, or even life-threatening, reactions. These reactions differ from each other in that they happen in different systems of the body.
Allergies happen in the immune system. For unknown reasons, the body will identify a food as an allergen and then treat it like a dangerous invader. The body mounts an attack and produces antibodies that then cause other cells to release chemicals that cause an allergic reaction. Allergic reactions can be caused by consuming even a minuscule amount, touching it, or simply inhaling microscopic particles from the air. Symptoms usually start within minutes and can include:
- Skin reactions (hives, itchiness, swelling)
- Vomiting or diarrhea
- Respiratory symptoms (shortness of breath or wheezing)
- Anaphylaxis—a life-threatening reaction that may include: difficulty breathing, dizziness, or loss of consciousness. Injected epinephrine and medical care are immediately required.
Food allergies happen most commonly in babies and children, but they can appear at any age. It’s even possible to develop an allergy to a food that has been eaten for years without any problems.
Food sensitivities can cause immune reactions that generate symptoms across body systems: joint pain, stomach pain, fatigue, rashes, and/or brain fog. Some people may be “cross-reactive,” meaning they react to foods that are related to each other.
Food intolerances happen in the digestive system and occur when someone’s body can’t properly digest a food. Symptoms of intolerances may take hours to show up as the food moves through the digestive tract and can include:
- Abdominal (belly) pain, gas, or bloating
- Diarrhea or constipation
- Headaches or migraines
- Nausea or upset stomach
- Skin rashes
Management and Treatment of Allergies, Sensitivities and Intolerances
The primary way to manage food allergies is to avoid consuming foods that cause a reaction. This involves diligent label-reading, but not all consumables are required to list potential allergens. Eating out can be especially challenging. Restaurant staff may not know all the ingredients of every dish that they serve. Depending on a person’s level of sensitivity, even walking into a restaurant could cause a reaction.
Not only can it be difficult to know what allergy-causing ingredients are in foods, but someone that has previously experienced only mild symptoms can, without warning, experience anaphylaxis. People with diagnosed food allergies should have an epinephrine auto-injector with them at all times. It is the only treatment for anaphylaxis.
Elimination diets can help identify food sensitivities. This is the process of carefully experimenting, observing, and documenting both foods and the reactions that they may cause. Over a period of weeks, foods are first removed, and then reintroduced—one by one. This is best done with the guidance of a physician or registered dietician. They can help you understand the limitations of this experiment and avoid potential difficulties.
Identifying food intolerances is also done by using an elimination diet. Some people may be able to consume small amounts of a food and have only minor reactions. The symptoms may be helped by taking over-the-counter medications such as lactase enzymes. Dietary changes may need to happen for intolerances to be properly addressed.
IgG Food Sensitivity and Other Tests
There are direct-to-consumer tests that claim to be able to spot food sensitivities by checking for immunoglobulin antibodies, typically one called IgG. A positive IgG test simply shows that someone has been exposed to that food in the past; it doesn’t show an allergy to food.
Many other tests allege to be able to identify food allergies or sensitivities (even “hidden” ones—whatever that means). They have no scientific validation, lack quality control, and should not be used to diagnose food allergies. Examples of invalid and unreliable tests include, but aren’t limited to:
- Applied Kinesiology
- Hair Analysis Testing
- Pulse Test
This is a condensed version of Sawtooth Mountain Clinic’s “Topic of the Month” newsletter. Read the full version and access all the resources used at: sawtoothmountainclinic.org.