Allergies vs Food Sensitivities: Are They the Same or Different?

Allergies vs Food Sensitivities: Are They the Same or Different? 

I’m not sure why, but I have been seeing increasingly more clients in my practice who suffer from multiple food sensitivities and allergies. 

The other day, one of my clients asked, “What’s the difference between a food allergy and a food sensitivity?” As this seems to be a growing concern, if one client had this question, there must be others who don’t know or understand the differences, either. 

So this week, I decided to delve in to the truth behind food allergies vs. food sensitivities. I’ll also fill you in on the symptoms to look for if you think that you, like so many others, may suffer from food sensitivities.


A True Allergy

A true or “classic” allergic reaction is almost instant. It causes an immune system reaction that affects numerous bodily organs. It also causes a variety of symptoms, often severe or even life-threatening.

If you are allergic to peanuts and happen to eat one mistakingly, you will know it right away. Usually a major reaction occurs immediately. Your throat or tongue may swell, constricting your airway, making breathing almost impossible. 

This is why people with severe allergies to bee stings, certain drugs like penicillin, nuts, shellfish, or any other food often carry a life-saving EpiPen. Should they ever mistakingly eat or come in contact with what they are allergic to, the EpiPen will provide a shot of adrenalin to keep them going until they make it to the hospital for further treatment.

What actually happens during an allergic reaction? 

The immune system is our body’s primary defence system. When a person is exposed to a foreign substance, immune system cells create antibodies to recognize that particular foreign body as an allergen. When these antibodies encounter that substance again, they react. As the allergen contacts the antibody, an immediate reaction takes place, producing symptoms within minutes to hours.

The Classic IgE Allergic Reaction

The classic allergic reaction involves antibodies called immunoglobulins. There are five major types of immunoglobulins - IgE, IgG, IgM, IgA, and IgD. 

The IgE antibody makes up a scant 1% of all antibodies produced and is what an allergist typically looks for when diagnosing an allergy. 

Once formed, the IgE antibody attaches itself to a receptor site on a certain cell. These cells can have up to 100,000 IgE receptor sites. In a non-allergic individual, a small percentage of them will be occupied by an IgE antibody, but an allergic individual will show cells completely covered in them.

Once the IgE antibody has attached to a cell, that cell has been “sensitized”. The memory of the IgE lasts a lifetime. So when the allergen reappears, wether weeks, months, or years later, the classic allergic reaction begins. Part of this reaction includes the release of histamine and inflammatory chemicals into any bodily tissue. Wherever these chemicals are released, symptoms will develop.

Common symptoms of the classic allergic reaction include:

  • Swelling of the airways to the lungs

  • Runny nose

  • Watery eyes

  • Itching

  • Hives or rash

  • Cramping stomach pain

  • Shortness of breath

  • Chest pain

Regardless of where the symptoms present themselves, they are always present with redness, heat, swelling, and pain - the four elements of inflammation.


A potentially fatal and the most dramatic of all allergic reactions is anaphylaxis. 

It happens extremely quickly and involves the whole body. Explosive symptoms begin within minutes of exposure and can include chest tightness, dizziness, wheezing, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, weakness, abdominal pain, skin reactions, and a rapid drop in blood pressure. 

If not treated right away, it can lead to a loss of consciousness and a whole body system failure.

How allergic reactions differ from food sensitivities

A food intolerance or sensitivity is sometimes thought of as a mild form of allergy. It can cause some of the same symptoms as a food allergy, and like an allergic reaction, symptoms can vary greatly. For these reasons it’s understandable why people may be confused, however there are some major differences.

First, the symptoms of a food intolerance do not happen right away. In fact, symptoms usually manifest anywhere from 1-4 days after coming in contact with the culprit.

This delay makes it difficult to pinpoint exactly what it was that caused the reaction in the first place.

Another big difference is that symptoms are typically less serious than that of a true allergic reaction. They may also be more general, ranging from skin problems to fatigue to headaches to joint pain, though they are usually limited to digestive problems.

Food sensitivities also involve the formation of IgG antibodies. These antibodies respond to partially digested proteins that have been allowed to escape the confines of the stomach and intestinal walls due to a leaky gut. 

Once the IgG antibodies attach to an antigen (or an escaped protein), inflammation results. The results of this inflammation, which can happen anywhere within the body, usually takes some time to be realized.

In fact, if we are sensitive to a certain food but don’t realize it, the inflammation it creates becomes chronic and “normal” to us. We may simply feel unwell or experience joint aches and pains that we attribute to the aging process. 

Sadly, most people exist this way. They do not feel well, or are constantly bloated and uncomfortable. They do no know what it feels like to be genuinely healthy - as was the case with me many years ago.

My Battle Against Red Wine

I used to drink a fair amount of wine, and it never seemed to bother me. At least I never noticed - except for the odd headache that a lot of red wine brought on. I passed this off as “Oh, I just drank too much red wine.”

But now, after having cleaned up my diet and having relied on nutrient-dense whole foods to fuel my body for so long, strange things happen when I introduce something my body isn’t used to. On the odd occasion that I do treat myself to a glass of wine, I get a very stuffy nose and feel congested. Usually this happens before I even finish one glass! 

Why? I’m not exactly sure, but I suspect it has to do with the sulphates added to the red wine. My system is no longer used to additives, preservatives, or sulphates, so when I ingest them, my immune system sees them as foreign invaders and mounts an attack. 

In hindsight, I guess red wine is not really a “treat” for me any more. 

Is it enough to stop me from occasionally enjoying the taste of the odd glass? No. But it is enough to make me think twice before I consume it. 

Now, because I know what to expect if do drink, I ask myself if the consequences are worth the reward. Most of the time, it comes down to ‘no’. I enjoy being healthy and feeling well much more than the alternative.

Disease, including allergy, is the result of a lifetime of destructive habits. Health, therefore, is a choice.
— Kelly

If you have a sensitivity to a certain food, you may even be able to eat small amounts of it without much issue. 

I liken our immune system to a cup in this regard. It can hold only so much before it starts to overflow and spill its contents. Eating a small amount of an offending food will only challenge the immune system a little bit. It can usually handle these small assaults. However, should you continually eat the offending food, or if you have multiple food sensitivities, which is often the case, the cup of your immune system fills quickly.

Once the cup has reached capacity and the immune system can handle no more, it overflows and symptoms of food intolerance result.

Common Symptoms of a Food Sensitivity:

  • Fatigue

  • Headaches or migraines

  • Chronic sore throat

  • Stuffy nose

  • Water retention/bloating/gas

  • Muscle cramps

  • Mood swings

  • Brain fog

  • Asthma

  • Constipation or diarrhea

  • Heartburn

  • Arthritis

  • Chronic ear infections or hyperactivity in children

The good news is that we can do something about it!

If you suffer from any of these nuisances daily or have persistent symptoms and are not sure why, I recommend food sensitivity testing. I strongly encourage you to make an appointment with your Naturopathic doctor or nutritionist to discover which foods may be triggering symptoms for you. More importantly, they can help you lean what to do about it.

There are steps you can follow to heal a leaky gut so undigested proteins can no longer enter the bloodstream and create problems. There are also many different food swaps you can try to avoid your personal triggers. 

Make an appointment with me today, either in person or online, so that you can have a healthier tomorrow.

As always, I welcome your feedback. Comment below if you have diagnosed or undiagnosed food intolerances, and what you’ve done to ease your symptoms. I’d love to hear from you!

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