Allergies, intolerances and sensitivities are not the same thing.
But the one thing they have in common might be your fatigue!
It seems like everyone is suffering from some sort of food intolerance or allergy these day. From peanut allergies to celiac disease to lactose intolerance, we are paying more attention to how food affects our health, including our fatigue.
Food allergies, food sensitivities, and food intolerances are often used interchangeably and inappropriately. In fact, scientific and medical circles are debating how to clearly define and use these three terms. The internet has even more conflicting information.
The one thing researchers can agree on is that undiagnosed food allergies, intolerances, and sensitivities will contribute to fatigue. If you want more energy, you need to identify and remove foods that trigger your immune system!
You have more than one immune system
The main difference between a food allergy and a food sensitivity is the immune system that gets triggered in response to an irritant. In this post, we will discuss IgE food allergies and IgG food sensitivities.
IgE food allergies
When your immune system is under attack from a food allergy, the antibody IgE is produced.
In many autoimmune conditions IgE levels are elevated. In fact, fatigue is the main symptom of autoimmunity.
Have you ever had the skin prick test done by your doctor?
It’s a common test done to determine food allergies. It is used to identify your body’s IgE response to particular foods. (2)
IgG food reactions
IgG is the most common antibody found in your blood. These antibodies bind with viruses, bacteria, and fungi and help your body remove these harmful substances. (3)
Food sensitivity tests measure the number of IgG antibodies your body develops after eating a particular food.
For example, you may not create any IgE antibodies to dairy products which means you are not allergic to dairy. However, but you could produce IgG antibodies which shows that you are sensitive.
To further complicate matters, there are other antibodies that can be measured for food sensitivities. These include IgM and IgA. This means that your IgG antibodies might not react to dairy, but your IgA antibodies do.
And just like IgE reactions, IgG food reactions can also be a hidden cause of fatigue! In fact, IgG reactions tend to hide better than IgE reactions.
An anaphylactic peanut allergy is an IgE reaction. It can be severe and fatal if not immediately treated. But IgG reactions to foods can be subtle. Sometimes all you’ll notice after eating is a slight feeling of fatigue. Something so benign that you’re likely to brush it off.
However over time, these IgG reactions have a compounding effect. If you want to increase your energy, identifying which foods trigger your immune system is essential!
What exactly is a food allergy?
A food allergy is a full-scale response from your immune system in reaction to a food. In response to the food, the body creates antibodies to fight it. (4)
In food allergies, the symptoms can be quite severe. Anaphylaxis is one of the more well-known symptoms of a severe food allergy. Anaphylaxis is a hyper-reaction of the immune system that can cause restriction of the airways and a severe drop in blood pressure. (5) The most common foods that cause anaphylaxis are peanuts, other nuts, shellfish or foods containing sulfites.
In anaphylaxis, the IgE immune system causes certain cells to release histamine. Histamine is what causes the swelling/inflammation commonly experienced in a food allergy.
Thankfully, not everyone with food allergies experiences anaphylaxis.
This response is considerably different from the triggering mechanisms found in food sensitivities.(6)
What are the symptoms of a food allergy?
Symptoms of a food allergy can range from mild to severe, and the amount of food necessary to trigger a reaction varies from person-to-person. Symptoms of a food allergy may include: (7)
- Rash or hives
- Cramping or stomach pain
- Itchy skin
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- Swelling of the airways to the lungs
What exactly is a food sensitivity/intolerance?
A food sensitivity/intolerance (also known as a delayed food allergy) is quite another story. Delayed reactions can appear in many different ways. They can affect any organ in the body and can take from 45 minutes to several days for symptoms to become apparent. (8) The delayed onset of symptoms and complex bodily functions involved in food sensitivities make them an especially difficult puzzle to try to solve on your own. In fact, food sensitivities often go undiagnosed or misdiagnosed. This makes them especially adept at being a hidden cause of fatigue!
When you body struggles to digest certain foods or ingredients it may cause a food intolerance. This may also happen when your body reacts to a certain food additive. (9)
Symptoms of food intolerance include: (10)
- Muscle and joint pain/stiffness
- Stomach pain
- Gas, cramps, and/or bloating
- Heartburn or GERD
- Irritability or nervousness
What causes food allergies and sensitivities?
Researchers are not sure what the exact cause of food allergies is. However, they do know there is a strong hereditary or genetic connection. This is because the family members of people with food allergies often also have allergies. Food allergies arise from sensitivity to chemical compounds (proteins) in food, but why the body reacts to some food proteins and not to others remains a mystery.
Food allergies develop after you are exposed to a food protein that your body thinks is harmful. Remember, your body creates antibodies to anything it believes is foreign or harmful. For example, if you are born with a peanut allergy, the first time you eat peanuts (or any food containing peanuts), your immune system responds by creating the specific antibody IgE that reacts to the peanut protein. If you eat peanuts again, your body recognizes it and releases the IgE antibodies and other chemicals, including histamine, in an effort to expel the protein “invader” from your body.
Allergies & histamines
The allergy symptoms you have depend on where in your body histamine is released. (11) For example:
- The release of histamine in your ears, nose, and throat may cause an itchy nose and mouth, or trouble breathing or swallowing.
- If histamine is released in the skin, you may develop hives or a rash.
- When histamine is released in the gastrointestinal tract, you likely will develop stomach pains, cramps or diarrhea.
Many people experience a combination of symptoms as the food they are allergic to is eaten and digested. Fatigue is a generalized symptom that occurs when histamine is released.
There are many factors that may contribute to food intolerances. For example, if you are lactose intolerant, that means you do not have the enzyme lactase that is needed to properly digest dairy proteins. Unfortunately it isn’t as clear as to why other food sensitivities trigger an immune response.
Can you tell the difference between a food allergy and a food sensitivity?
With a food allergy, even one molecule of the offending food’s protein can trigger a response. When the food is eaten the body reacts. That’s why people with food allergies need to completely avoid foods they are allergic to.
Food intolerances can depend on how much is eaten and how often. People with food intolerances may not have symptoms when they eat a small portion of the food, or don’t eat the food frequently.(12) For example, if you have a sensitivity to dairy, having one small bowl of ice cream may not cause you any problems. However, there’s a good chance you would wake up with diarrhea and brain fog after spending a night binging on Ben & Jerry’s.
How are food allergies/sensitivities diagnosed?
People with food allergies know exactly what food causes their allergy. They eat peanuts or a product with peanuts in it and immediately have a reaction. Others need a doctor’s help to find the cause. (13) Doctors can use either blood tests or skin tests to determine which foods/substances you are allergic to.
In an allergy skin test, a very small drop of a liquid food extract, one for each food, is placed on the skin. The skin is then lightly pricked. This is safe and generally not painful. Within 15 to 20 minutes, a raised bump with redness around it, similar to a mosquito bite, may appear. This shows that you are allergic to that food.
There are two accepted methods in determining a food sensitivity:
Lab tests for food sensitivities measure IgG or IgA antibodies to particular food proteins. Ideally, a lab will test both, as you can have a reaction to one but not the other. Once a food allergy is ruled out food sensitivity tests are run. For example, if you suspect you react to peanuts, ruling out a peanut allergy should be your first priority. Should the food allergy test show that you are not allergic to peanuts, your doctor may decide to investigate a peanut or legume sensitivity.
Your fatigue is different than the fatigue of anyone else you know. You’re a unique snowflake and your nutrition should reflect this. Food might not even be the cause of your fatigue. But the only way to find out is to experiment.
With this in mind I created a straightforward fatigue reset diet. By performing this reset, you’ll get your first introduction to what foods to avoid in order to improve chronic fatigue.
The Fatigue Reset Diet is an elimination diet designed to balance your blood sugar, identify food sensitivities, and increase energy. I use it with nearly all my patients and it continues to be the best first step in overcoming fatigue. In just 30 days, you will discover which foods to avoid in order to improve your chronic fatigue.
However, if you’ve given it a try and it did not result in a noticeable change to your energy levels, performing an IgG food sensitivity test is a great idea. This will help you narrow down the exact foods that may be a hidden source of your fatigue!
Ok, you now have the information needed to determine if your symptoms are due to a food allergy or a sensitivity.
Let’s hear from you. How did you determine the foods your body best tolerates?