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Food Allergy vs. Food Intolerance

When it comes to the food we eat, some of us might experience a negative reaction. But is the response caused from your immune system or is it more of a gastrointestinal issue? The source of the reaction makes all the difference, as one is considered a food allergy and the other is an intolerance. By understanding the difference between the two, you can make sure that you’re armed with the information you need to make the healthiest and safest food choices possible depending upon how your body reacts to certain foods.

Food Allergy

A food allergy is triggered by your immune system, the most common of which is called an immediate-type hypersensitivity. These reactions are caused by the IgE antibody and you will typically experience a reaction within one hour of eating something that you’re allergic to. With IgE-mediated food allergies, even a small amount of the food allergen can provoke a reaction.

Symptoms of immediate hypersensitivity include:

  • Skin reactions (hives, swelling)
  • Respiratory symptoms (difficulty breathing, coughing, wheezing, throat swelling)
  • Gastrointestinal symptoms (nausea, vomiting, diarrhea)
  • And cardiovascular symptoms (lightheadedness or dizziness caused by low blood pressure)

You’ve probably heard of the term anaphylaxis, which is when more than one of these reactions occur simultaneously. This is potentially life-threatening and is common with immediate-type hypersensitivities. It’s very important that these symptoms are promptly recognized and treated with injectable epinephrine in order to stop the reaction from progressing.

Interestingly enough, if you’re allergic to pollen then you might have unpleasant oral symptoms after eating certain fruits or vegetables. Known as oral allergy syndrome, these reactions are caused by allergens found in both the pollen and the food. Symptoms can include itching, tingling or mild swelling sensations.

Food Intolerances

Food intolerances, on the other hand, are reactions that aren’t a response that’s fueled by your immune system. Although not life threatening like food allergies, food intolerances can certainly be very uncomfortable and impact your quality of life. If you can identify the food intolerances that you have, then you can greatly reduce your symptoms. Often, the amount of food ingested can affect whether symptoms occur. For example, a lactose intolerant person might be able to have small amounts of ice cream without having problems. Therefore, avoidance of the suspected food does not always have to be strict, which is encouraging for some.

Typically, with food intolerance, symptoms tend to center on the gastrointestinal system. A widely known food intolerance is lactose intolerance, where our digestive system lacks sufficient amounts of an enzyme that breaks down the sugar in cow’s milk. This poor digestion leads to symptoms like bloating, gas and diarrhea.

Common food intolerances include:

  • Lactose intolerance
  • Fructose intolerance
  • Non-celiac gluten intolerance

Food intolerance symptoms include:

  • Bloating
  • Gas
  • Diarrhea
  • Headaches
  • Migraines
  • Racing heartbeat and tremors (caffeine is a big culprit here)

In some cases, intolerances are caused by the properties of the food itself. For example, certain foods contain forms of a histamine that can cause symptoms ranging from a rash to GI symptoms. These reactions are not due to a specific allergy, but instead are the chemicals in the food that are causing symptoms. Some of these trigger foods include overripe fruits, caffeine, nuts, MSG and alcohol.

Overall, adverse food reactions can be bothersome no matter what their cause. The good news is that a careful review of symptoms, the foods that trigger them, and a thorough evaluation from a trained doctor can help to identify whether or not the reactions are true food allergies or some form of intolerance. If you suspect that you’re suffering from a food allergy or intolerance, call (269) 789-4380 to make an appointment with Dr. Swender.