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Allergy vs. Sensitivity: what’s the difference?

People often use the terms allergy and sensitivity almost interchangeably, but they usually have different intensities, and are caused by different biochemical reactions in the body.

Seasonal allergies are familiar to many of us. Our reactions to environmental triggers can include itchy eyes, nose and throat, all of which have a mucosal lining that can secrete histamine in response to a foreign protein, like pollen. It is this histamine response that causes itching, redness and mucus production.

True allergies to food and other triggers (e.g. bee stings, latex) can cause anaphylaxis, which is a medical emergency. This is why the medical system pays them much more attention than it does to food sensitivities: allergies can be deadly! People with known allergies often carry EpiPens - to act fast in case of such a reaction.

Food allergies triggering anaphylaxis are immunoglobulin E mediated. They produce acute symptoms, which come on suddenly and are often fierce. They can be likened to an intense, raging fire.

Food allergies can also cause skin reactions, most commonly hives or eczema. This is why skin prick tests, where the skin inflames in response to a tiny dose of the allergen, are used to check for them. However, these skin prick tests often miss food sensitivities.

Sensitivities are somewhat more subtle, and not deadly, but they can make you feel pretty awful, and often get worse as time goes on. They occur via a different immune response (IgG), which can be likened to a damp leaf fire that smoulders on and on, causing less intense but longer lasting symptoms. And because they are less intense and are not life-threatening, they are less studied and less readily recognised.

Food sensitivities may also be referred to as intolerances or food reactions. All of these mean that the food causes problems, but we may not know the biochemical mechanisms at play.

Food sensitivities are linked to a leaky gut, meaning a disrupted gut mucosal lining is allowing bigger food particles to interact with gut-based immune cells. If leaky gut is present, and it often is, sensitivities can increase over time as more and more foods start to trigger an immune response.

There are many ways to detect and assess food sensitivities:

· IgG Blood tests. These measure circulating immunoglobulins from food reactions. It is important to “prime” your system before doing this test, meaning eat a little of the food you suspect may be causing problems.

· Elimination-challenge diet. In this method you eat a very restricted diet; for example lamb, rice and pears only, for a period of two weeks. Then slowly, one at a time, introduce a new food. Eat that one new food for three days and observe your reaction. If your symptoms reappear, you have your answer. This method can take months to work through if there are many food sensitivities.

· Bio-feedback methods. Some people use energetic methods to assess food sensitivities, such as electro-dermal testing and applied kinesiology.

People who suffer seasonal allergies and have food sensitivities often find that being more careful with their diet during allergy season reduces their allergy symptoms. If your body reacts when overwhelmed by environmental triggers, reducing food irritants affecting the gut mucosa can lessen your overall load. This may help you handle those irritants impacting your eyes, nose, throat and lungs.

For more information on alleviating seasonal allergies, click here.

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