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Food Sensitivity vs Food Allergy: What’s the Difference?

Did you know that millions of Americans have allergic reactions to their food each year? An even bigger number suffer from food sensitivities and the numbers keep going up. Research is a little foggy on the occurrence of sensitivities, but to give you an idea, it’s suggested that IBS, just one condition commonly associated with food sensitivity, affects 24 to 45 million in the United States and the prevalence of gluten sensitivity is estimated to affect up to 13% of the population. If you think your food is making you sick, you’re in good company.

There is a general lack of awareness for food sensitivities and diagnosis can be a challenge—a real problem our team at EverlyWell is trying to change. These aren’t just diet trends; both allergies and sensitivities affirm the belief that some foods just don’t agree with certain people. Understanding the difference between the two could save your life or at least land you one step closer to taking control of your health.

Let’s take a deep dive into what food allergies and sensitivities are, their symptoms, the testing options and what the results mean for you.

How to tell food sensitivities and food allergies apart

When it comes to the relationship between our bodies and the food we eat, food allergies certainly get the most attention—and for good reason. Symptoms can be life-threatening and reaction times are lightning-fast. For those of us with food allergies, even tiny amounts of the food can trigger an immune system reaction. That’s why you hear about someone having a reaction to a microscopic amount of peanut dust on a candy wrapper that someone is eating nearby. Reactions happen every time you eat the food, a contrast to food sensitivities which may only happen if you eat a lot of a specific food or eat it often. People with food allergies most likely know about their condition. You don’t easily forget that peanut butter and jelly that sent you straight to the ER.

Food sensitivities stem from a reaction between your immune system and certain proteins in the food you are eating, like gluten, for example. These complexes are called IgG-immune complexes, as opposed to the IgE antibodies present during an allergic reaction, and this is the source of the inflammation that occurs from food sensitivities. Reactions to food sensitivities, like feeling bloated after eating, can be subtle with reaction times ranging from one hour to 48 hours after the sensitive food has been encountered. Since symptoms mirror many common aches, pains and ailments, it’s easy to overlook a food sensitivity as the cause. If the reaction is delayed, it adds to the confusion since it might have been something you ate two days before. Instead of being life-threatening like allergies, sensitivities affect your lifestyle. No cheese or carb enthusiast wants to learn that their favorite foods are making them sick.

Food Allergy

  • Immediate reaction
  • IgE-mediated immune response
  • Can affect multiple organs
  • Occurs even with the smallest exposure to trigger food
  • Happens every time a trigger food is ingested
  • Potential to be life-threatening

Food Sensitivity

  • Reactions occur as quickly as one hour or up to 48 hours after trigger food is ingested
  • IgG-mediated immune response
  • Reaction is most commonly isolated to the digestive tract or intestinal inflammation
  • Occurs when trigger foods are encountered frequently or in large amounts
  • Potential to be lifestyle-threatening
  • Often overlooked or misdiagnosed

Food Allergy Symptoms

When a trigger food is ingested, your body will start reacting almost immediately, within minutes. Milder reactions will include:

  • Hives
  • Flushed skin or rash
  • Tingling or itchy sensation in the mouth
  • Face, tongue, or lip swelling
  • Vomiting and/or diarrhea
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Coughing or wheezing
  • Dizziness and/or lightheadedness

Severe allergic reactions to food can lead to anaphylaxis, a life-threatening condition that leads to constricted airways, drops in blood pressure, shock and swelling of the tongue, throat and vocal cords. Each year in the United States, there are approximately 30,000 ER visits, 2,000 hospitalizations and 150 deaths due to anaphylaxis. While those are scary numbers, the best thing to do is be proactive about your food allergies, undergo testing and carry around two EpiPens wherever you go. It’s important to remember that reactions on the milder side can start and then become more serious in a very short period of time. You might have a trigger food a few times with mild reactions before a major reaction occurs.

While more than 160 foods can trigger food allergies, eight foods account for almost 90 percent of all food-related allergic reactions, including milk, eggs, peanuts (the most dangerous), tree nuts, fish, shellfish, soy and wheat. Since food allergies can be so serious, there are laws in place to protect those who suffer from them. These eight common offenders, and any ingredient that contains proteins derived from one or more of them, are designated as “major food allergens” by The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA). That means manufacturers are required to clearly print what their products contain if they are any of the those ingredients.

Food Sensitivity Symptoms

Do you suffer from any of the following symptoms? Notice how many of these food intolerance symptoms mirror common ailments as well as many of the symptoms associated with food allergies.

  • Acne
  • Brain fog
  • Eczema
  • Dry and itchy skin
  • Bloated stomach after eating
  • Fatigue
  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
  • Joint pain
  • Reflux
  • Migraines
  • Diarrhea
  • Difficulty losing weight
  • Respiratory issues
  • Depression and mood swings
  • Runny nose
  • Headache
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Dark circles under eyes

Getting technical: What’s going on that we can’t see?

While both sensitivities and allergies both stem from your body’s immune reactions towards food, the way your body reacts on a molecular level is quite different. When your body senses an alien substance in your body, including “invaders” like snake venom, viruses, bacteria, cancer cells and—you guessed it—foods that don’t agree with you, your immune system dispatches antibodies to identify, target and neutralize, causing a reaction. The byproduct of this reaction is the symptoms we see and feel.

Your body creates different types of immunoglobulins or antibodies based on the invader, or antigen, at play. And that’s where the key difference lies. Food sensitivities produce immunoglobulin G (IgG), one of the most common antibodies. Food allergies, on the other hand, produce immunoglobulin E (IgE). Testing to detect both IgG and IgE antibodies is the most definitive way to determine whether or not you have a food sensitivity or a food allergy and what foods are wreaking havoc in your body.

Calling in the experts

You might think that based on symptoms and reaction times, you can do a self-diagnosis or ask Dr. Google. But when it comes to the relationship between your body and food, self-diagnosis can be dangerous, especially when it comes to overlooking serious underlying issues. You maybe think, for example, that a gluten sensitivity is to blame for your symptoms when it could be Celiac Disease, a more serious condition that would require different treatment. What’s more, self-diagnosis can lead to unnecessary and potentially harmful diets that deprive your body of nutrients you need. This is one thing to leave to the pros. The Everlywell at-home health testing kits make it super simple and affordable to test from the comfort of your own home.

How does food sensitivity testing work?

Technically speaking, the EverlyWell food sensitivity kit uses an enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay, also called ELISA, to detect and measure IgG antibodies in your blood which tests your body’s intolerance to 96 specific foods when your blood is exposed to them. The IgG test from EverlyWell, like all our products, is done from home at a convenient time for you. The kit arrives at your front door with a collection card, lancets, a USPS pack, and all the supplies you need. After you have received the home health testing results, EverlyWell will provide tailored advice for you based on what we learn.

Like the ALCAT test, both tests detect food sensitivities. But the way in which we test a patient’s specimen is what sets us apart. Since ALCAT uses a cellular approach to test for sensitivities, they require much more blood which must be drawn at a specific facility and might be an extra charge. EverlyWell partners with the most prominent CLIA-certified labs across the country for our specialty testing. What’s more, our test costs half the price of ALCAT.

How are food allergies diagnosed?

EverlyWell doesn’t offer home health kits for food allergies. Consulting your primary care physician or allergist is a crucial first step. Since symptoms can be life-threatening, this isn’t something that falls into the category of self-diagnosis. After going over your medical history with you, your doctor would use one of the following methods to help make sense of your symptoms.

  • Skin test: Small amounts of allergens are applied to skin, followed by a small prick with a needle. If the prick becomes red or itchy it indicates that you are, in fact, allergic.
  • Blood test: Checks the number of igE antibodies produced in your body. In an igE test, elevated levels of certain antibodies help identify reactions to specific foods.
  • Food diary: Document what you eat and the possible symptoms that follow. Use an elimination diet to remove suspected culprits one at a time for two to eight weeks (the longer the better).

Surviving and thriving after diagnosis

If you have taken your health into your own hands and undergone testing for what foods are making you sick—good work! That’s half the battle. The best course of action is to avoid foods that don’t agree with you. Check out these helpful tips to steer clear of trigger foods and feel your best:

  • Educate yourself. Learn about ingredients in the foods you eat. It’s not uncommon for eggs, wheat, milk and other reactionary foods to be called by other names.
  • Educate others. Depending on the severity of your symptoms, it may be a good idea to tell anyone preparing your meals about your food sensitivities or allergies. That includes family, friends and waiters. At restaurants, it’s always smart to speak up about your condition since many times, these everyday ingredients can pop up on your plate without your knowledge and navigating the menu can be confusing.
  • Stock the pantry. For those who suffer from sensitivities or allergies to common foods, like gluten, it’s important to stock your pantry with safe foods and appropriate substitutes to keep you on track and to reduce cravings.
  • Pay attention to labels. Manufacturers can change ingredients of their products without notice, so double-check ingredient labels every time you buy a food, even if it is something you buy over and over.
  • Consult an expert. Our customer service team is on hand to answer questions and help you better understand which foods are best for your body and which ones to avoid. If you have cut certain foods from your diet on your own based on your condition, you may be short-changing yourself on important vitamins and minerals, so it’s important to get professional advice. When needed, we can make recommendations for consultation with registered dieticians and other medical professionals. (INSERT CONTACT INFO)
  • Join the conversation. Once you take an EverlyWell Food Sensitivity test, you are welcomed and encouraged to join our closed Facebook page to share stories and helpful tips with others who also live with sensitivities.

For those with dangerous allergies, carry two epinephrine auto-injectors (a.k.a. Epipens) with you at all times. Have an action plan, learn to recognize the signs and symptoms of anaphylaxis, and know what to do in the event of a life-threatening allergic reaction.

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