What's the deal with food allergies?
So, a few folks have recently asked me the difference between an allergy sensitivity and a sensitivity. Here is a personal case in point:
When I eat pecans, my tongue tingles and my eyes water a little. When I eat a brazil nut, my lips swell and my throat closes. In mid-June, I'm sneezing and having watering eyes non-stop. These are all ALLERGIES, where your immune system is directly and immediately attacking the substance and you have an allergic response.
On the other hand, SENSITIVITIES are far more subtle. Last night, I thought that I'd try soy for the first time in a year or two, in the form of soy mayonnaise in a lovely potato salad. After 2 hours, I just became a little chilly. After 3 hours, I was just a little grumpy. I didn't really notice the change objectively, only in retrospect. This morning, I feel what might only be described as 'hung-over', although I haven't had any alcohol in a while. Other people might get a little bloated, gassy, spacy, brain-fogged, etc. Others might develop some unexplained skin rash or itching. The feelings might happen within hours, or might take a couple of days to appear. As a side note, the symptoms might also take days to clear, which can make it hard to pinpoint the source. These are pretty vague, right? Hard to spot, hard to identify. Food sensitivities are a bear to identify and take fortitude to try to eradicate.
The distinction between sensitivities and INTOLERANCES is less distinct. It almost seems that it's a bit of a continuum, where intolerance leans towards the more immediately physically frustrating end. The prime example of this is lactose intolerance - a person drinks milk and within an hour or two, they're gurgling, burping and having abdominal pain and perhaps diarrhea. This is due to their digestive system not having the ability to break lactose down into the things that your body can absorb. Lactose stays in the gut and starts to act like milk of magnesia, or your other favorite laxative of that type. Intolerances are often due to the body not having the ability to convert a substance into something that it can deal with.
"So, you may be asking, "I've got some of the things you talked about, how do I know which allergy type I have for sure?" Well, like most things in medicine, "that depends".
Allergies can usually be detected via a blood test or skin scratch test, especially if you've been exposed to the substance somewhat recently. Intolerances may be detectable by looking for specific elements in urine or stool, or may not be easily detectable. Those more subtle intolerances and food sensitivities can only reliably be determined by fully removing the item from your body for a period of time and then 'challenging' it by trying it again and seeing if the symptoms return. I should note that some sensitivities may show up in specialized blood tests or via other alternative methods, but the removal/challenge test is the reliable gold standard, albeit the one that is more irritating to try.
This isn't a full breakdown nor analysis of the topic, just something that I thought that I would share based on my own experience from last night. If you'd like to learn more, or would like help digging into your own concerns, feel free to drop me a line.
Dr Adam Sandford, NMD
Where Nature Meets Science