Understanding Food Allergy, Food Intolerance & Food Sensitivity

Patient Expert

Food Allergy, Food Intolerance, and Food Sensitivity are all terms that have recently joined our vernacular. But, what do these terms really mean? That's what we're going to explore in this Sharepost.

A Food Allergy is an immediate or slightly delayed immune reaction to a specific food, even if that food is ingested in tiny amounts. The reaction can be mild, such as a rash, hives, or nausea, diarrhea, vomiting or abdominal cramps; or, severe, such as swelling of face, tongue, airway, or even life-threatening such as anaphylactic shock.

The reason for the reaction is that the body's immune system is mistakenly identifying that specific food as a harmful substance. The body then produces antibodies to fight the offending food. Then the immune system releases histamine into the bloodstream and leads to the symptoms of food allergy.

According to the Mayo Clinic, it is estimated that 6 to 8 percent of children under age 5, and about 3 to 4 percent of adults, have an actual food allergy. Of these numbers, many children outgrow their food allergies as they age.

Food Intolerance does not involve the immune system and is typically caused by the body lacking a specific enzyme needed to digest a particular food. That said, a food intolerance can cause some of the same signs and symptoms as food allergy. For many people with a food intolerance, they can possibly eat a small amount of the offending food, infrequently, without triggering a reaction.

A Food Sensitivity is an adverse reaction to a food which does not involve antibodies, but other aspects of the immune system.

So, how do you determine if you have a food allergy or sensitivity/intolerance? There are a number of methods. First, is by documenting your history of symptoms as well as what you eat and drink every day. Read my Sharepost about keeping a food journal to learn more-   http://www.healthcentral.com/ibd/c/2623/95394/keeping-food-journal. Keeping your food journal for at least 2 weeks before you see your doctor can help them know which direction to go next.

Prick or scratch tests are administered by allergists and test a number of common food allergens by injecting a serum including that allergen under the thin skin, usually on your back. You will remain in the doctor's office for a period of time and be monitored to see what kind of reaction, if any, you have. If the prick tests are inconclusive, or if for some reason you can't do the prick tests, there are particular blood tests that can be done to test for allergens.

Personally, I found the best option for finding those foods that my body reacted negatively to was with an elimination diet - you can read my Sharepost about how to do this here: http://www.healthcentral.com/ibd/c/2623/92582/elimination-diet This diet will take some time, about two months, and you need to be dedicated to it. It's not easy, but it is amazing because at the end of it you will know how particulare foods make you feel and it will be easier for you to determine whether it's worth eating those foods or not. Once I found the foods that made me feel bloated, gassy, dizzy, etc. I just stopped eating them because it wasn't worth feeling bad.

The last option is something called an oral food challenge and should be done only with your doctor and under close medical supervision in case you have a severe reaction to a particular food.

If you think you have a food intolerance or allergy it's worth talking to your gastroenterologist. But, also realize that this is not their expertise. So you may also need to see an allergist who can help you with the skin prick test, blood test, or food challenge.

Because of the highly-processed nature of so many of our foods today more and more people are finding they have intolerances. The foods that are most allergenic/intolerable include wheat, corn, dairy products, grains, and food colorings and preservatives.

Start your food journal today, then call you doctor to schedule a time to discuss your possible food intolerances or allergies.

Elizabeth Roberts is the author of Living with IBD & IBS: A Personal Journey of Success - www.ibdandibs.com She is now studying to be a Natural Foods Chef to further help people eat for their specific illnesses - www.eatlivelocally.com