Since treatment for a digestive disorder was my introduction to the power of Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine, digestive disorders hold a very special place in my heart and in my practice. Assessing food allergies and sensitivities is always high on my list when people come into my office with digestive complaints and while it isn’t the source of everyone’s problems, it is becoming increasingly common and always bears review when determining course of treatment.
The difference between a food sensitivity and a food allergy is something I get asked almost every day in my practice so you know, I thought it was probably time to write something about it!
Food Allergy vs. Food Sensitivity - What Gives?
The difference between a food allergy and a food sensitivity is rather subtle and often confusing for most people. At the most basic level, a food allergy is something that is strong and will likely show up on a blood test. A food sensitivity is something more subtle - you may notice the signs and symptoms when you eat it, but it won’t necessarily create a strong enough reaction in the bloodstream to be measurable by western tests.
This sounds rather straight forward, but most people find it confusing because the subjective experience of a sensitivity can be just as strong if not stronger than the subjective experience of an allergy.
I’ll give you an example:
Patient Joe is sensitive to gluten and allergic to eggs. His sensitivity to gluten causes irritable bowel syndrome symptoms - intestinal cramping and diarrhea - but a blood test does not show that he is actually allergic to the substance. His blood test identified allergy to eggs, however, causes some puffiness in the hands and feet and a feeling of lethargy. The experience of the intestinal cramping is painful, it feels more severe than the reaction to eggs, but technically it is a sensitivity because it doesn’t show up on a blood test.
Both an allergy and a sensitivity cause antigen-antibody complexes to form in the bloodstream, cause inflammation and create a reaction. Only one (allergy) causes a large enough quantity of these complexes to be measurable in the bloodstream.
As you can see, however, except for cases of anaphylactic shock, the difference between an allergy and a sensitivity is rather immaterial - they both cause a reaction that is harmful to the body and can negatively impact your quality of life. The key, therefore, is being able to identify them and make conscious choices about how we do (or do not) control our exposure to them so that WE get to be in charge of the reaction.
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Rebecca M H Kitzerow is a Licensed Acupuncturist practicing in La Center, Washington. With over a decade of experience she has won 10 Nattie consumer choice awards from Natural Awakenings Magazine since 2014.