What is the Difference Between a Food Allergy, Food Sensitivity, & Food Intolerance
The term food allergy is a bit of a misnomer, since with a true food allergy the immune response is rapid, often leading to anaphylactic symptoms of throat swelling, itchiness, hives, and difficulty breathing.
A more accurate term is food sensitivity, where unlike an IgE immune-mediated allergy response, you immune system creates an IgG immune-mediated response. An IgG response is much subtler and slower to respond, which makes it easier to miss the connection between food and how you are feeling.
Even though food sensitivity/IgG responses aren’t as dramatic or life-threatening as an allergic IgE response, it can still be life-changing for many people.
While the immune system is involved in food allergies and sensitivities, there is a third type of food reaction called food intolerance, which primarily involves the gastrointestinal tract. The most well-known is lactose intolerance. In this type of food reaction, the individual does not have the lactase enzyme to break down lactose in dairy. Other common intolerances include histamine, fructose, salicylate, and sulfite.
Food Sensitivity Testing Can Be Life-Changing
For some people, finding out if they have a food sensitivity can be life-changing. One of our favorite stories is helping a middle-aged man who was experiencing severe day-time sleepiness, almost to the point where other doctors thought he had narcolepsy. Despite getting 8-9 hours of sleep each night, he found himself falling asleep to and from work on an hour-long bus ride, as well as general drowsiness throughout the workday. His irresistible urge to sleep all the time was beginning to affect his work and marriage.
When he initially came to us, he previously had a thorough medical work-up, having undergone several sleep studies and blood work. He was put on a trial of testosterone and statin medication for abnormal labs, but otherwise he was generally really healthy. Like most patients who come to see us, he was at a loss and wasn’t improving from the treatments prescribed by his conventional doctor.
Based on his medical history, we decided to run a food sensitivity test. The results were shocking to him, as he had a severe reactivity to eggs. Eggs were a staple in his diet; he ate them daily for breakfast! He didn’t understand why something he had eaten since childhood would now be the underlying cause to his fatigue, but he nonetheless agreed to do an elimination diet as part of a trial.
At our follow-up visit when he was asked how he was doing, he said that he was “fine”—as if nothing had improved. After further inquiry however, he reported that he was no longer falling asleep on the bus and was more alert during meetings. Once the patient made the connection, he was floored.
Why Do People Develop Food Sensitivities?
The exact mechanism to why people develop food sensitivities is not completely understood. However, the current thinking is that it is correlated with intestinal permeability (leaky gut), where the gut becomes compromised and lets through larger molecules than it should. When the immune system detects these larger molecules in the bloodstream, it recognizes them as foreign invaders and mounts an immune response—creating low-grade inflammation.
A leaky gut occurs when tight-junctions in the lining of the gut become damaged. Imagine a screen window with holes in it; pesky bugs can get through because the barrier is not doing its job!
Similar to a screen window, when the gut undergoes consistent stress it slowly begins to breakdown and become “leaky.” Our bodies experience different types of stress. Stressors can be mental, emotional, and environmental (i.e. heavy metals, antibiotics, pesticides, and other chemicals).
Until the gut is repaired and the offending food is removed, the immune system will continue to overreact, which leads to any number of symptoms—often in weakened or damaged organs/systems.
Is Food Sensitivity Testing Accurate?
Like with any test, there is always a potential for error, leading to false-positives or -negatives. The gold standard for food sensitivity testing is the elimination diet, where you avoid many common food triggers and reintroduce them one at a time. While this is the preferred and most accurate method of testing, it is often very time-consuming and difficult, so many patients just opt for the lab testing.
Checking for food sensitivities through a lab is relatively quick, easy, and provides a good place to start treatment. We strive to work with the most reputable companies available, while keeping affordability in mind.
What Company Do We Use for Food Sensitivity Testing?
For the majority of our patients, we like to start with food sensitivity testing through US BioTek. In more complicated cases, we offer advanced testing through MRT (please inquire).
With US BioTek, we commonly run the IgG Food Super Panel, which covers 144 common food sensitivities within the categories of dairy, fish/seafood, grains/legumes/nuts, meat/fowl/egg, fruits, vegetables, herbs/spices (Click here to learn more). US BioTek offers various other panels as well, if indicated.
How Much Does Food Sensitivity Testing Cost?
The most commonly ordered US BioTek Panels*:
- $335 – 144 Food Super Panel
- $275 – 96 General Food Panel
*The fee includes a blood draw and a 60-minute consultation (by our Registered Nurse/nutrition coach) to review your results and get dietary recommendations.
Takeaway on Food Allergy / Food Sensitivity Testing
Food is not inherently bad, but it is often our response to a particular food that can trigger a whole host of health issues. The type of responses people develop largely depend on the integrity of the digestive system. If compromised, larger molecules pass through the digestive system and into the bloodstream, where the immune system mounts an IgG-mediated immune response. When an IgG response develops to a particular food antigen, we call this a food sensitivity (which is different than a food allergy).
Food sensitiviy testing is really just a fraction of your body’s complex relationship to food. A negative food sensitivity testing doesn’t necessarily mean that you aren’t reactive to a food; it just reveals that there is not an immune response to that food. You could actually be reacting to the pesticides, hormones, or chemicals in that food instead. In other cases, you may have a digestive deficiency or infection. Regardless of your issue, we will get to the root cause!
In summary, identifying a food sensitivity can be life-changing. This is not the case for everyone, but it is definitely something to consider. This is especially true now that more and more research is emerging to show the importance of the gut and its connection to the brain, immune system, autoimmune issues, and much more.
Contact us today to schedule your food sensitivity testing!!!
If you have more chronic digestive issues, like severe gas, bloating, or abdominal pain, ask us about testing for SIBO, infections, gut permeability, or nutritional deficiencies.