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Intolerance or Sensitivity?

The vocabulary used to describe an unpleasant reaction to a food may be confusing or incorrect when identified as an allergy. Reactions are often caused by an intolerance or sensitivity that has nothing to do with allergy although symptoms can resemble those of a food allergy.

What is food allergy?
A true allergy always involves the body’s immune system and can cause reactions that are mildly uncomfortable (including hives or stomach distress) or be quite serious, in some cases leading to anaphylaxis. According the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network, “Anaphylaxis is a sudden, severe, potentially fatal, systemic allergic reaction that can involve various areas of the body (such as the skin, respiratory tract, gastrointestinal tract, and cardiovascular system). Symptoms occur within minutes to two hours after contact with the allergy-causing substance, but in rare instances may occur up to four hours later. Anaphylactic reactions can be mild to life-threatening.”

A physician may conclusively diagnose an allergy. When a food allergy is identified, treatment includes eliminating the offending substance from your diet.

What is food intolerance?
The major difference between allergy and intolerance is the impact on the immune system. If the immune system is not affected, it is not an allergy. Symptoms of food intolerance may appear immediately after ingesting the offending food or take days for a reaction. The lack of an immune response, the possible delay of symptoms, and the variety of symptoms presented make diagnosis of food intolerances more difficult. Currently, the best way to identify a food allergy is an elimination diet.

People with celiac disease are frequently described as being “gluten-intolerant.” Celiac disease is a digestive disorder diagnosed in people who are genetically predisposed resulting in damage to the small intestine causes the small intestine to lose its ability to absorb the nutrients when gluten is eaten. Gluten is a protein found in a variety of grains (see entire list) including wheat, barley and rye.

Today people are learning that they are intolerant or sensitive to gluten without having celiac disease or an allergy to gluten. Many other foods may cause unpleasant reactions too.

Facts to consider:

  • Wheat is one of the top eight allergens along with cow’s milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish and, soy, which account for 90% of all food-allergic reactions
  • Approximately 6-7 million Americans have a diagnosed food allergy
  • At least 30 million Americans suffer from some food intolerance
  • Celiac disease affects 1 in 133 people although many remain undiagnosed
  • Children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders, which affects 1 in 166 children, show improvement when following the gluten- and dairy-free dietary protocol.
  • Other autoimmune diseases show improvement in symptoms on a gluten-free diet including rheumatoid conditions, chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia and, migraine headaches.

Although allergy and intolerance are not the same thing, they both cause sufferers to negatively react to certain substances. The term sensitivity is often used to encompass both terms.

References:
National Institutes of Health
Gluten Intolerance Group of North America
Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network
The Journal of American Medical Association
Cure Autism Now Foundation

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