Is Your Food Slowly Poisoning You?
I often hear “food allergy,” “food sensitivity,” and “food intolerance” used interchangeably – but they’re not the same things! They stem from different processes in the body, and so the approach to rebalancing each issue is quite different. Let’s take a closer look…
First, if the body is going to have an issue with a food, it can choose different avenues for foods to produce symptoms. Think of the armed forces: Army, navy, marines, air force, coast guard. You get the idea. All united in the central mission of protecting the country, but vastly different ways of doing so.
It’s the same with how the body tries to protect itself from invaders by invoking the immune system. Alert! Stranger danger! Must mount a response! Great for microbes like bacteria or parasites that can cause us significant problems. Not so great for the food that should be contributing to overall nourishment and wellbeing instead of a state of high alert and inflammation. So really, food reactions are a case of mistaken identity.
Food reactions are a case of mistaken identity.
Food Allergies: This is an IgE-mediated response, with activation of histamines, and comes on pretty immediately after exposure to a food. The exposure can be oral, but can also be through inhalation or skin contact. This is the classic allergic reaction: hives, swelling often in the face or mouth or throat, throat tightening and difficulty swallowing, dizziness or lightheadedness, nausea or vomiting, mouth itching, and anaphylactic response and death. IgE food allergies can be medical emergencies. We will see an elevation in basophils and eosinophils in response to food allergies.
Food Sensitivities: These are IgG and IgA mediated response, with possible activation of our eosinophils. Reactions are delayed up to 3 days after exposure to the food, which can make it incredibly hard to pinpoint. Symptoms can include diarrhea, constipation, nausea, headaches, rashes, changes in mood or anxiety, or bloating. Food sensitivities tend to be more controversial in the conventional medicine world, with some practitioners going so far as to tell their patients that food sensitivities aren’t real. However, clinical studies and practical experience has shown over and over again that certain food sensitivities can cause inflammation and symptoms for certain individuals, and when the reactive foods are removed, the symptoms resolve.
- IgA responses are pretty short-lived, the reaction lasting for about a week after being triggered.
- IgG reactions, meanwhile, can keep going for several months from a single food exposure.
Food Intolerances: A very different beast from allergies and sensitivities. These are not so much reactions mediated by the immune system, but instead are symptoms caused by foods not breaking down well because there are nutrients or enzymes that are lacking. An enzyme is like a pair of scissors cutting up food into smaller and smaller pieces until only single units remain. Food intolerances are often due to inflammation in the gut, genetics, a response the body is having to a parasite or food sensitivity/allergy, or nutritional deficiency of specific vitamins or nutrients.
- Lactose intolerance = insufficient lactase, the enzyme to break down this milk sugar
- Histamine intolerance = insufficiency of an enzyme such as DAO to break down excess histamines
- Sulfur intolerance = insufficiency of the mineral molybdenum that impairs the body in changing dietary sulfur into useable forms
- And so on.
Food intolerances can be short lived, depending on how they are managed, and are a direct result from exposures to the foods the body can’t break down well. Symptoms can include pain in the stomach or intestines, gas, reflux, headaches, changes in mood, nausea, and vomiting, or diarrhea. While the immune system is not involved here, damage can still occur in the gastrointestinal tract or the rest of the body from these poorly broken down compounds.
So what to do?
IgE reactive foods must be removed from the diet completely, as these are inflammatory and can create low-grade simmering immune hyperreactivity. While the immune system will often remember a food that caused issue, some people are able to fully heal their food allergies with homeopathic medicine prescribed by a homeopath. Also, as children jump from infants to elementary age, sometimes the immune system regulates itself and no longer has an IgE issue with some foods. Testing this out should be done with the support of a licensed health care practitioner.
IgA and IgG food reactions can sometimes be healed with intensive gut healing. This may include some combination of removing problematic foods temporarily, rebalancing the gut microbes and rebuilding the gut lining, encouraging parasites and pathogenic bacteria to leave the gastrointestinal tract, and improving digestive function.
Food intolerances can sometimes be resolved. This process may involve some combination of gut healing (as above), determining suboptimal nutrients, cleaning up the diet, resolving stress and trauma, regulating the thyroid, and including use of specific enzymes or food preparation processes that help to break down the compounds that the body is struggling to break down on its own. Sometimes food intolerances will go away completely, though if the body is lacking production of an enzyme due to genetics, this may need to be continuously supplemented to keep symptoms from recurring, especially during times of stress.