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Making Sense of Food Allergies, Sensitivities, and Intolerances


March 26, 2012 | Published by

allergic reaction by Flickr user Gumdrop SweetIn this post, I address the meanings, misuse and differences between allergies, sensitivities and intolerances. In the next post, I talk about what you can do to identify food allergies and sensitivities. The final post in this series is on eliminating allergies, sensitivities and intolerances.


There is a lot of misunderstanding and misinformation regarding food sensitivities and their effects on your body. When you’re under stress or if you have adrenal fatigue, it is important to nourish your body with healthy foods. However, in some people, the ingestion of certain (normally healthy) foods can create a physiological stress that adds to the total body burden and challenges the adrenal glands. Identifying and removing offending foods from your diet can help reduce your stress load and improve your health—especially if your adrenals are fatigued—but it is important to know what to look for and to understand what you are dealing with.

Most people are aware of the classic food allergy: you take a bite of shrimp, your tongue swells and you break out in hives. The problem is that some people assume that if this isn’t happening to them, they don’t have food sensitivities—which isn’t necessarily the case. On the other hand, many people experience an energy crash after they ingest sugar and think they are allergic to it—which isn’t possible. That doesn’t mean that sugar can’t create its own set of problems in your body. (I’ll get to that in a minute). My goal in this blog is to help you understand the various types of food allergies, sensitivities, intolerances and reactions to pharmacologically active (those that induce a drug-like effect) food components. Any of these may stress your adrenals and cause them, and in some cases your immune system, to work overtime.

Let’s start with some definitions. An allergy is a type of hypersensitivity to a food—an adverse immunologic response to a protein found in the diet. This is why sugar can’t be an allergen. Sugar is pure carbohydrate, not protein, and a protein is required to trigger the immune response. The example I used with the shrimp is what is known as an IgE mediated allergy, the most widely recognized food allergy. IgE, or immunoglobulin E, is a type of immune cell. In this type of food allergy, IgE triggers symptoms such as hives, swelling, and in some cases anaphylaxis (a life-threatening condition that causes airway constriction) shortly after ingestion of the offending food.

Other types of hypersensitivity (mediated by different immune cells such as IgA or IgG) can also occur. Although not an “allergy” in the classic sense, they can create an inflammatory response and are responsible for many chronic disease states. Gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, rye and other grains, often affects the body in this way and can be responsible for bloating, diarrhea and abdominal discomfort. In the worst cases, gluten can cause celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that severely damages the intestinal lining. Celiac is associated with other autoimmune disorders such as diabetes and thyroiditis. Gluten sensitivity, even without intestinal effects, has been linked to psychiatric and neurological problems, including bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and ataxia, a disorder that causes loss of muscle coordination.

Food intolerances, such as lactose (milk sugar) intolerance, are often the result of a deficiency in metabolism. In the case of lactose intolerance, the digestive enzyme called lactase that is needed to break down the lactose is missing or present in insufficient quantities. As a result, the milk sugar enters the large intestine incompletely digested, and the bacteria that live in the intestine ferment it, producing large amounts of gas as a byproduct, which causes bloating, loose stools and abdominal discomfort.

Some foods have a pharmacological (drug-like) effect on the body. Caffeine is a central nervous system (brain) stimulant and can cause rapid heart rate and increased blood pressure. A substance called tyramine, found in smoked meats and fermented foods like cheese, causes release of certain neurotransmitters in the brain and has been implicated in the development of migraines. Opioids are chemicals that act like narcotics and may induce pain relief and sedation. Opioids have been found in both wheat and dairy proteins. Some people report sensitivities to additives such as artificial sweeteners, chemical flavor enhancers such as MSG, and certain dyes.

Finally, some foods influence the body’s metabolism and cause physiologic effects that way.  Sugar is the primary source of energy for the brain. If blood sugar is allowed to drop too low—because you’ve gone too long without food or because you ate too much sugar too quickly and compensatory mechanisms have overshot their mark—the brain doesn’t receive the sugar it needs and produces symptoms such as irritability, palpitations, anxiety or even a personality change.

Now that you are aware of the various ways foods can negatively impact and create stress in your body, I’ll help you learn some ways to identify which foods may be causing your problems.

Continue to part 2 – Identifying Food Allergies, Sensitivities, and Intolerances

Continue to part 3 – Eliminating Food Allergies, Sensitivities, and Intolerances

Image Credit: Allergic reaction by Flickr user Gumdrop Sweet

Dr. Lise NaugleAbout the Author: Dr. Lise Naugle is an associate of Dr. James L. Wilson. She assists healthcare professionals with clinical assessment and treatment protocols related to adrenal dysfunction and stress, and questions regarding the use of Doctor Wilson’s Original Formulations supplements. With eleven years in private practice and a focus on stress, adrenals, hormonal balance and mind-body connection, she offers both clinical astuteness and a wealth of practical knowledge. Dr. Naugle also maintains updated information about the latest scientific research on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis function, endocrine balance and nutritional support for stress and develops educational materials about stress and health for clinicians and their patients.


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