Mar 23 , 2021
The difference between food allergy, sensitivity/intolerance and disease
A food allergy, food intolerance and GI specific disease can all have similar signs and symptoms, making it important to know the differences between them to help better protect yourself and identify a potential issue.
Food allergies are estimated to affect 4% to 6% of children and 4% of adults, according to the CDCP (Center for Disease Control and Prevention). Although symptoms are more commonly seen in babies and children, they can appear at any age (even if someone has eaten the food for years without a problem). An allergic reaction occurs when the body identifies a food/substance as a danger and triggers an immune system response that involves the production of antibodies (IgE to be exact); these stimulate the release of certain chemicals, like histamines which cause physical symptoms. Symptoms of food allergies can range mild to severe and even though an initial reaction is mild, subsequent reactions can differ and even become more severe. The most severe allergic reaction is call anaphylaxis, which is life threatening and includes the whole body. It can cause impaired breathing, dramatic drop in blood pressure and changes in heart rate. Other symptoms of an allergic reaction can include: vomiting, hives, repetitive cough, circulatory collapse, trouble swallowing, swelling of the tongue, pale or blue coloring of skin, dizziness, etc. There are 8 foods that make up about 90% of reactions: eggs, milk, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, wheat and soy.
A food intolerance causes a physical reaction in the body and can cause some of the same signs and symptoms of a food allergy. However, unlike an allergy, an intolerance is generally less serious and often limited to digestive issues. Also, unlike an allergy, an intolerance is not characterized by an antibody immune response. Causes of food intolerance/sensitivity can include:
- The absence of an enzyme need to fully digest a food, as in lactose intolerance.
- Irritable bowel syndrome, which is a chronic condition that can cause cramping, constipation and diarrhea.
- A sensitivity to food additives, for example sulfites used to preserve dried or canned goods can trigger asthma attacks in sensitive people.
- Recurring stress or psychological factors can cause a reaction to certain foods or food in general for a reason that is not fully understood.
Symptoms of food intolerance tend to take longer to appear than symptoms of allergies, but many of the signs and symptoms overlap. Symptoms can include bloating, migraines/headaches, cough, stomach ache, irritable bowel, nausea, diarrhea, constipation, etc.
GI Specific Disease:
We know now from previous weeks that the immune system and the GI tract are linked. This means that illness can affect the digestive system and vice versa. However, there are certain diseases that are concentrated around the digestive system, making their signs and symptoms overlap those of food allergies and food intolerances. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder where the body mounts an immune response that attacks the small intestine when gluten (a protein found in wheat, rye and barley) is consumed. These attacks damage the villi that line the small intestine and promote nutrient absorption. Ulcerative colitis (UC) is an inflammatory bowel disease that can cause long-lasting inflammation and ulcers in the innermost lining of the large intestine and rectum. Symptoms usually develop over time and can vary in severity, in some cases being debilitating and leading to life-threatening complications. Crohn’s disease is an inflammatory bowel disease that causes inflammation in the digestive tract. The inflammation can occur anywhere along the digestive tract and often spreads deep into the layers of the affected tissue. This can make the disease painful, debilitating, life-threatening and harder to treat. Although there is no known cure for UC or Crohn’s, certain therapies can reduce the symptoms and, in some cases, offer long-term remission.
Why is it important:
Gastrointestinal distress issues are much more common than most people think. This can be attributed to both the changing trends of the Standard American Diet and that we are now able to identify and diagnose more accurately. When someone is experiencing GI distress, whether from a food allergy, food intolerance or GI centered disease, they may be unable to digest and absorb the nutrients that are essential to a health life and it may result in a compromised immune system. Damage in the digestive tract can lead to long-term deficiencies that can affect the function of a variety of body systems, growth/development and health. It is important to protect yourself, including your GI by listening to your body and becoming aware of any signs or symptoms of GI distress. If you have a known food allergy, become familiar with what food products might contain it and avoid them. If you think you have an intolerance to a specific food, try eliminating it from your diet. You can also get tested for food sensitivities. GI specific diseases need to be treated very specifically and treatment should be discussed with and monitored by a physician or specialist. A proper whole food diet that is tailored to you and your needs can lead to a stronger immune system, more energy and decreased risk for injury or illness. This will make your specific goals more maintainable.
- Be Aware:
- As in previous weeks, being aware is always the first step to making changes. Review this week’s presentation and write-up.
- Take note of the different disruptions to the GI system that are discussed above and the symptoms that go along with them.
- Take Note:
- Continue your food journal from previous weeks. Complete for at least 4 days, but is best if you can complete for an entire week.
- Make sure to include any GI symptoms that may come up throughout the day.
- Go back and look for any patterns between specific food intake and GI distress symptoms.
- Take Action:
- Eliminate: If you notice a possible link between a specific food and GI distress symptoms, try eliminating that food product from your diet for 1-2 weeks and see if you notice a difference in your symptoms.
- Consult: If you are having trouble identifying patterns, culprits of GI distress or just want more guidance in your diet patterns, consult a registered dietitian.
- Test: If you are still unsure about what foods might be causing you distress, set up a food sensitivity test through Fluid Health. Get more information online or from your trainer or dietitian.