How To Differentiate Between Food Allergies and Food Sensitivities

Guest Post by Dr. Allana Polo, Polo Health + Longevity Centre

From the moment our kids are conceived, we become preoccupied with keeping them safe and well. This includes, of course, their first taste of liquid nutrition and the journey to becoming good eaters of solid foods. As we introduce a new food to our babies, we look for any sign of it ‘not sitting well’ – from a rash to a gassy tummy.

Many parents worry about food allergies and sensitivities as they appear to become more and more common; most of us have a niece, or nephew, or neighbour that has a life-threatening food allergy or some kind of reaction to a particular food. A question that many of us are used to asking when other children come over to play is, “Does your child have any food allergies?”

It’s good that we are aware of the different types of reactions, but with the overlap of some of the symptoms, things get a little confusing. One of the biggest questions I get from my patients who are parents is: how do we know if our child has an actual food allergy, or if they are just sensitive to a particular food?

Food Allergies

A food allergy is when the body’s immune system reacts as though it needs to fight off disease. The first exposure to the offending food has no outward effect on the body. But on the inside, an antibody called IgE is created against that particular food. The next time that food is ingested, it binds to the antibodies that are now floating around in the system and triggers an overt reaction like cramping, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, gas, hives, and even difficulties breathing.

An allergic reaction takes place immediately after eating, or can take up to several hours to manifest. If the reaction is going to be as severe as an anaphylactic shock, it will usually occur within the first hour after ingestion. Anaphylactic shock is deadly and requires immediate medical attention. The symptoms are wheezing, difficulty breathing, swelling of the tongue and throat, and fainting. Usually if someone knows they have an anaphylactic reaction to a certain food, they will carry an auto-injector of epinephrine with them to counteract the reaction.

Some of the more common food allergies in children include peanuts, soy, milk, wheat and eggs.

Food Sensitivities or Intolerance

Generally, the words sensitivity and intolerance are used interchangeably. A sensitivity actually has nothing to do with the immune system. The symptoms in this case stem from an inability to digest the food. Symptoms (commonly nausea, abdominal pain, diarrhea and bloating) usually appear about half an hour after ingestion, but can also take up to 48 hours to really show themselves. Heartburn and headaches are also indications of a food sensitivity or intolerance.

Two of the most common food intolerances are dairy, and gluten. Dairy and gluten are two substances many naturopaths ask their patients to eliminate when we are testing to see how their body responds on and off these foods. Not everyone who has sensitivity to gluten has Celiac disease. The latter is completely different, where any gluten consumed actually damages the intestinal lining.

Key Differences Between Food Allergies And Sensitivities

An allergic reaction can occur even when only a tiny amount of the allergen is present. For a sensitivity to be detected, generally a normal portion size needs to be consumed.

An allergic reaction happens more immediately, whereas a sensitivity can make itself known days later.

An allergic reaction can be life-threatening but a sensitivity is not.

How A Naturopath Can Help With Food Sensitivities

You can work with your naturopathic doctor to determine what your child is sensitive to, and even the extent to which the food needs to be avoided. It’s also important to ensure that the gut remains healthy through the use of probiotics and/or digestion is aided with digestive enzymes. You and your naturopath can work together on your goals to keep your child safe and well.

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