Autoimmune Disease Management 101: Fighting Back

Do You Have A Food Allergy Or A Food Sensitivity?

If you have been feeling sick or having tell-tale allergy signs (e.g. hives), you may want to investigate whether or not you have an allergy or sensitivity to certain foods in your diet. The words "allergy" and "sensitivity" are often used interchangeably when someone talks about his or her dietary restrictions. However, there is a difference between the two. Read on to learn about allergies and sensitivities and how to treat them.

What's the Difference Between an Allergy or a Sensitivity?

If you have a food allergy, your immune system overreacts to certain substances with Immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies. An IgE response causes your body to release histamines—chemicals which are known to cause inflammatory responses. Too much histamine can trigger hives, mouth/skin sores, swollen airways, nausea, diarrhea, and the like. In some people, an overactive immune response can cause anaphylactic shock: a serious allergic response that can be life-threatening.

Food sensitivities, on the other hand, are less severe than allergies. While a food allergy is caused by an overactive immune system, a sensitivity is triggered by the digestive tract. Instead of releasing IgE antibodies, people with sensitivities release Immunoglobulin G (IgG) antibodies. These antibodies are released when incompletely digested food proteins escape the GI tract and enter the blood stream. A food sensitivity is usually a symptom of a larger issue, such as

While some people may have inflammatory issues, like hives, sensitivities usually cause GI-specific symptoms, like diarrhea, nausea, bloating, and gas.

How are Allergies and Sensitivities Tested?

In order to get a comprehensive overview of allergies, it's best to go to an allergy specialist that does skin prick testing (SPT) and blood testing. SPTs are great because they are very affordable tests and easy to perform. Your specialist will scrape pieces of skin with different allergens. If your body has an IgE response, you will know that you have an allergy. To verify an SPT, your doctor can also draw blood in a lab and test it.

There are blood tests for sensitivities, but these aren't as accurate as allergy tests. The problem is that these tests mainly detect foods that you've recently ingested. So if you haven't eaten a certain food in a while, your body may not have IgG antibodies. Instead of testing, your doctor may recommend a restriction diet in which you slowly reintroduce certain foods. If you develop GI symptoms after reintroducing a certain food group, then you likely have a sensitivity to it. Gluten-, lactose-, and fructan-free foods could help sensitivities.

Talk with a doctor, like one from The Regional Allergy Asthma & Immunology Center, PC, for more information about food allergies and sensitivities.