Allergy versus intolerance - what is the difference?

There is a lot of hype at the moment about food intolerances and food allergies. While the terms are often used interchangeably, there is a difference between the two. 

At the most basic level, an allergy is something that is variable, meaning people may experience different symptoms each time they ingest a food that aggravates them. Symptoms may also vary from person to person, and tend to come on immediately after ingestion. Food intolerance, on the other hand, is a fixed state of being, and is rooted more deeply on a physiological level. 

Allergies can arise as a result of several different factors: environment, food and chemicals, to name a few. The most common foods that we are allergic to, strangely enough, are the ones that we tend to eat the most: wheat, milk, eggs, citrus etc. 

Take the example of lactose (milk). As they age, many people may experience problems with lactose intolerance. This occurs when there is an insufficient amount of the enzyme lactase in the body to break down the lactose (milk sugars). If the lactose isn’t broken down in the digestive tract like it should be, it stays there, and results in loose stools and gas. If these symptoms present themselves a few hours after taking the product in, this is likely an intolerance. 

If, however, you take in milk and 10 or 20 minutes later, you experience a headache, congestion or stomach pain, that is an allergy. Why? The immune system can react almost immediately, and the presence of these immediate symptoms is evidence that the body is sensitive to what it has just ingested. The symptoms of an intolerance take a few hours to emerge. 

What are the common symptoms of food allergies? 

Symptoms can vary from person to person, however common symptoms are congestion, gastrointestinal problems and arthritic problems. You may also experience headaches, general lethargy or brain fog when you ingest certain foods you are sensitive to. If you are experiencing these symptoms frequently, it may be useful to record everything you eat in a food journal, along with how you feel when you eat particular foods. 

Why are more people experiencing food allergies? 

One underlying cause of food allergies is a problem with the digestive tract. If the digestive tract is inflamed, due to various bacteria, or the presence of yeast, it tends to be more allergic. When out intestinal tract is swollen or inflamed, we don’t digest our food well. When this happens, the food particles that get absorbed aren’t broken down like they should be, and arrive in the stomach as large pieces. The body doesn’t recognise these large chunks of food, and therefore reacts to it as a foreign body. 

What can be done to minimise food allergies?

When we heal the digestive tract, we are on the way to minimising food allergies. One way to test for allergies is to undertake an elimination diet for one week only. Remove milk, wheat, eggs and citrus for 7 days and take notes about how you feel. On day 8, introduce one of those foods back for two days, before re-introducing another food (in normal amounts). 

For the first three or four days, you may feel worse with this process, as your body is going through withdrawal. However when you introduce an inflammatory food back into your diet, you may experience an exacerbation of symptoms. By doing this, you will see the real reaction this food provokes in your body.