Many people confuse food allergies with food sensitivities and food intolerances. They may use the terms interchangeably or mistake one for another. However, the difference between an allergy to a certain food and an intolerance is very real, and is determined by whether or not your immune system is involved.
A food allergy can be severe, and in some instances, life threatening. Some of the most common foods associated with allergies include peanuts, eggs, shellfish, tree nuts, milk, and foods that contain sulfites. When you eat a food that you’re allergic to, your immune system perceives the food as a foreign invader, and goes into overdrive. Certain immune cells are mobilized to attack the offending substance, and histamines and other chemicals are released in an attempt to wipe it out. However, the histamines that are released can cause damage and inflammation to your tissues, leading to symptoms, such as hives, swelling, and in extreme cases, anaphylactic shock. Usually, a food allergy affects your airways, gastrointestinal tract, and skin.
An allergic reaction to an offending food is almost immediate. In contrast, a food sensitivity tends to happen in slow motion. It may take an hour or up to a couple of days after eating a food for symptoms associated with a food sensitivity to appear. Like a food allergy, a food sensitivity also involves your immune system, but the symptoms associated with a food sensitivity are not as severe, and any system in your body may be involved in a food sensitivity reaction.
A food sensitivity tends to be dose dependent, which means that you may be able to eat a small amount of the offending food and not experience symptoms. However, with a true food allergy, it only takes a single molecule of the allergic food to set off an immune reaction. Because symptoms associated with a food sensitivity tend to appear more slowly, may not involve a histamine reaction, and can affect a variety of organs, it is often difficult to diagnose a sensitivity and pinpoint the triggering food. For that reason, food sensitivities tend to be misdiagnosed or go undiagnosed. In contrast, most people who have a food allergy know exactly what food will trigger a reaction.
A food intolerance is different from a food allergy or sensitivity, in that it doesn’t affect your immune system. An intolerance to a food means that your body can’t digest it properly for one reason or another. For example, people with an intolerance to gluten have problems digesting the proteins found in wheat and other grains, and people with a lactose intolerance are missing an enzyme necessary to digest milk. The symptoms associated with a food intolerance are related to your inability to digest the food, and tend to be limited to your gastrointestinal tract. They may include gas, bloating, intestinal cramping, loose stools, or diarrhea.
Food intolerance may also manifest in skin rashes, or conditions such as psoriasis and eczema; excess mucus or phlegm in the respiratory tract; joint pain; memory loss, lack of focus, signs of dementia; and other seemingly unrelated and chronic symptoms.
There are a number of reasons that you may develop a sensitivity to certain foods. Some possible explanations include:
- Weak digestion
- An imbalance in the microbes in your gut, or intestinal permeability (leaky gut)
- Overstressing your immune system
- Chronic stress, emotional upset, or trauma
- Toxicity from food additives, pesticides, and other chemicals
- Family history or genetics
If you were to seek out Chinese medicine for food sensitivities, your practitioner would first diagnose the underlying cause of your symptoms. They would likely determine that you have a Spleen Qi depletion, a Liver and Spleen disharmony, or depleted Lung Qi.
Your Chinese Spleen organ system is responsible for digesting the food you eat and converting it into the energy and nutrients needed to fuel every system and function in your body. Therefore, a Spleen depletion means that your digestion is not up to par. A Liver and Spleen disharmony simply means that overwhelming stress or strong emotions which are usually held in check by your Liver system are out of control and affecting your digestion (Spleen).
In Chinese medicine, your immune system is governed by your Lungs, as they’re responsible for the exterior of your body. Think about it; when you get a cold, the flu, or seasonal allergies, they’ve come from outside your body, and tend to affect your lungs or respiratory tract first. A strong Lung system translates into strong immunity. When your Lungs become depleted, it can result in weakened immunity. A weakened or out of balance immune system can be the source of food sensitivities or allergies.
There are a number of strategies involved in treating food sensitivities in Chinese medicine. Your practitioner would work with you and your unique health history to develop a plan that may include strengthening your Spleen system to improve digestion, calming your emotions and relieving stress, and nourishing your Lungs as a way to boost and balance your immunity. Your treatment plan would likely involve acupuncture, and may be combined with herbal medicine, food therapy, and lifestyle modifications for the best results.
Cindy Chamberlain is an acupuncturist in Overland Park, KS and the founder of Eastern Healing Solutions, LLC. She is licensed in Kansas and Missouri and has been practicing traditional Chinese medicine since 1996.