What is the difference between a food allergy and a food sensitivity or intolerance?
A food allergy is a strong, immediate immune response involving inflammation of respiratory, gut or skin tissues in the body. The most severe form of allergy is known as anaphylaxis. These sorts of allergies can be accurately tested for using medical allergy tests.
A food sensitivity is is less immediate, intense and obvious. The inflammatory response is still present, but it’s not strong enough to cause anaphylaxis, and it often can’t be accurately tested for. While the response may be milder, the inflammation can still damage body tissues. It just takes longer. Chronic mild inflammation is exhausting for the body and the damage to tissues can set the stage for infections and illness on many levels.
OLD PARADIGM – “Food sensitivities”
In the old paradigm, people with food sensitivities are generally considered defective, weak or broken in some manner. Mainstream medical thinking, for example, won’t acknowledge a sensitivity to wheat/gluten unless it is full-blown, life-threatening coeliac disease, or something that shows up definitively on an allergy test. Anyone who claims to be ‘wheat or gluten sensitive’ without medical agreement is considered defective because they are deluded and imagining things.
Years ago a client called me to say that there was gluten in the herbal tablets I had prescribed her. I was perplexed.
“But there is no wheat or gluten listed in the ingredients!”, I explained to her. She stubbornly stood her ground and suggested I call the manufacturer.
“I know what my body is telling me. I haven’t changed anything else in my diet.”
So I called the manufacturer and explained the situation. He told me that there was no wheat or gluten added, so they didn’t list it in the ingredients, but my client was correct because gluten was a by-product formed during the herbal preparation process. Sensitives, generally for the most part, aren’t precious hypochondriacs who are imagining things.
I myself am a food sensitive. You can read a little about this journey here. About every 7 years or so, I visit a doctor, usually just for help with diagnosis when I’m a little unsure if I’m self-assessing accurately. I don’t accept prescribed medications because I prefer using food/herbs and lifestyle changes. On one visit, the doctor looked at my symptoms and said she wanted to test for coeliac disease. The test came back negative. A few months earlier, a local naturopath who I will tell you more about later, tested me for food sensitivities using a different approach, and the result for wheat came back positive. So which test was accurate?
Months later, after gaining a little too much weight, I removed wheat bread from my diet for a month because I knew from personal experience this would get my weight back down into a healthy range. After a month went by, I had my first serving of bread and my body, after having had the offending substance removed for a while, told me in no uncertain terms exactly what it thought about having it brought back again. The symptoms were severe watery diarrhoea and abdominal cramping. But perhaps it was just food poisoning or a gut infection? To test this theory, I stopped eating bread again and retested a week later. My body gave me exactly the same response. So I removed all wheat and kept retesting. In the process, I gathered a very clear symptom-picture of my relationship with wheat. When I didn’t eat it, I had no diarrhoea (mild chronic diarrhoea had been haunting me for years). When I did eat it, I not only suffered diarrhoea, but mild asthma attacks and eczema, very similar to my response to dairy.
Food elimination and reintroduction is a classic naturopathic technique for testing food sensitivities. There really isn’t any other way to accurately build a clear picture of your own unique relationship with a specific food, and It’s probably the most effective method we have available for testing food sensitivities because the way the body responds to food is so complex that no one test can possibly identify all food sensitivities. I do however, highly recommend my naturopathic colleague Dorte, and her method for testing, which is one of the most accurate I have come across so far.
The other point I would like to make is that while naturopathy acknowledges the reality of sensitivities that cannot easily or accurately be tested for, the industry still tends to view people with food sensitivities as abnormal or defective. People with food sensitivities may have more finely wired, sensitive nervous and immune systems in need of greater naturopathic support, but I don’t think these sensitivities need to be viewed (or presented to the client) as a weakness. I consider them a strength.
NEW PARADIGM – “Food sensitives”
As a naturopath and healer who has worked with hundreds of food sensitives over the years, I would like to propose a new paradigm for the way we think about people with food sensitivities.
Food sensitives are people who have a special sensitivity to food that all of us can learn from. It isn’t just food sensitives who are affected by what they eat: we all are. Food sensitives are finely attuned and able to hear with their bodies what the rest of us are deaf to. They have an edge, a gift (albeit a gift in disguise!); a relationship with food that can lead to extraordinary health.
You could think of food sensitives as the nervous and immune system of the human race, revealing to us the foods we should all handle with caution. Food sensitives are front-runners, going out into the field and coming back with valuable information about the relationship between the human body and the food we eat. Yes, we are all different, but when it comes to food that insults and damages the body, we are surprisingly similar.
When a food sensitive listens to their body and notices what foods make their body feel uncomfortable, they then reduce or eliminate this food from their diet, regardless of whether a scientific test proves that they do or do not have a sensitivity to that food. When the offending food is removed, health improves and the ability of the body to communicate becomes stronger, partly because the body’s systems are cleaner, but also because listening and responding encourages further communication.
If someone doesn’t listen to you, you either turn up the volume, find a different way to communicate or you give up and walk away. The body is the same. Sheer overload of toxicity combined with exhaustion and a lack of response from the conscious mind can cause the body to shut down and give up.
LISTENING TO YOUR BODY
Most of us are conditioned to tune the body out and ignore its subtle signs and symptoms of imbalance or discomfort. This can have its advantages. It enables us to persevere through physical hardships that might otherwise cripple us or prevent us from accomplishing amazing goals. It can save our lives when we are in life-threatening situations where we just need to keep going. And it can protect us from the down side of hypochondria (excessive anxiety about body sensations).
But it also has its drawbacks.
As a healer and naturopath, one of the primary goals I have is to enhance the mindfulness of my clients. I want to facilitate better mind body health by improving the pathways of communication between their conscious mind and their body.
If you don’t listen to your body, you can’t care for it effectively. Most people, instead of listening to the bodies whispers of complaint due to maltreatment, will continue to self-abuse. Take for example the client who lives on indigestion medication, drinking it as though it were water… because after all, the indigestion couldn’t possibly be caused by the food and drink they are eating and they couldn’t possibly bring themselves to change their behaviours.
The vast majority of us are conditioned to ignore and suppress communication from our body using our mind and medication. What this does is sets the stage for chronic illness and disease. The indigestion so artfully ignored is a form of communication from the body. It’s a food sensitivity response. If we ignore it by saying ‘Oh that’s just me’, or ‘It’s okay I can pop a pill’ or ‘It doesn’t really matter, its only a bit of indigestion’, we do ourselves damage.
A non-sensitive might not care. “So long as I get ‘quality of life’ (i.e. I can do what my ego/conscious mind wants, rather than responding to my body’s needs), I don’t care if I have to take pills or I don’t live as long.” That’s easy to say when the symptoms are mild and you are used to living with them. But I’d like to point out two things here:
1) Most people have no idea what it feels like to be really healthy. They are accepting a substandard of wellbeing without ever knowing the alternative. If they really knew how good it could get, they might prefer not to trade their health in for the sake of convenience, apathy and short-lived self-gratification.
2) Those somewhat mild physical discomforts people so often consider a normal part of life (and therefore not worth doing anything about), can lead to serious illness later in life. It’s so hard to imagine the reality of this when you are reaching for your next chocolate bar or hot dog, but chronic inflammation will eventually catch up with you, and it isn’t going to be pretty. It is possible to grow old gracefully. I have an uncle in his mid 80’s who still lives independently, works part time, has no medical conditions and isn’t on any medications. He even goes on driving trips by himself into remote parts of Australia to explore nature. He isn’t just ‘lucky to have good health or better genes’ – that’s a load of twaddle. He’s smart. He has listened to his body and made good choices. He refused to ignore his body and suppress its symptoms.
Sensitives have an edge. They listen to their body and this leads them to better health and quality of life.
Emotional and cognitive health
If you don’t listen to your body you won’t know how you really feel about things, because emotions are physical body sensations. I’ve lost count of the times I have worked with clients who have become deaf, blind and dumb to their own emotions because they have been conditioned by society (and their childhoods) to ignore them.
For example, the tension in your jaw that causes teeth grinding and pain, pain that may even extend into the neck, can often be caused by frustration. The nausea that is putting you off your food may be caused by unresolved worry, and the chronic headaches you are suffering could be caused by unexpressed anger. Too often, rather than being aware of the cause and taking action to address it, we simply ignore the symptoms. Taking a panadol for a headache without asking yourself why you might have a headache in the first place, is a good example of this.
When people join the dots and make connections between behaviour, emotion and body sensations, their health improves. Identifying the true causes behind an ailment (remembering the cause can be multifaceted), gives us the information we need so we can take corrective action and restore balance. We are a homeostatic system and our bodies are constantly attempting to restore balance. Sometimes symptoms can themselves be an attempt by the body to self-correct, which is part of the reason why the suppression of symptoms with medication has always seemed slightly insane to me. Instead of saying “Oh no, your blood pressure is rising, lets medicate that!”, why aren’t we asking why it’s high? Modern medicine likes to play dumb and pretend it doesn’t know the cause behind high blood pressure but simple observation tells us that strong emotions and lifestyle habits are part of the cause. If you have ever stood in accident and emergency and watched all the blood pressure and pulse monitors in the room, you will see classic rises in response to fear and anger. When these emotions are chronic in a person’s life because they aren’t building self-awareness and taking corrective actions to resolve these emotions, blood pressure can become chronically high… especially when this is combined with poor food choices and physical inactivity.
Suppression lets us keep assaulting ourselves. For as long as you can fall back on the crutch of turning a blind eye, medicating, ignoring, pretending it isn’t happening, or its ‘normal’ and ‘everything is fine’….. the underlying cause behind your symptoms will persist and this will do you damage and give you a very poor quality of life.
Suppression also stops us from building self-awareness, getting to know ourselves and growing as a whole person.
Your body knows a lot more about your environment than your conscious mind does. It is constantly scanning, assessing, absorbing, and responding to it’s environment. All of this happens very quickly, without your conscious awareness.
If you don’t then listen to it’s assessment, you are working blind. Your conscious mind is only part of who you are. It doesn’t have all the answers and to be honest, sometimes it can be a bit dumb and slow, because it can only process one thought at a time and it has been strongly conditioned to perceive reality in specific ways.
Without access to our body-based wisdom, we can become cut off from a seemingly magical process of hidden information-accessing and processing. Your intuition is your body communicating to you about the information it has gathered and processed. It thinks faster than your conscious mind can think and it processes a mountain of information your conscious mind simply would not be able to compute.
Think for a moment about what happens when we play fast-paced sports for example. We have to make complex decisions in fractions of a second. Your body responds faster than your mind does. You may have used your conscious will to train the body, but in the heat of the moment, you will play better if you get out of our own way and let your body take the lead.
Then there are those times when no matter how much you think it through with your head, and no matter how logical you are… there isn’t an obvious or easy answer. If you can’t rely on that invisible body-based wisdom to guide you at this point, you can quickly come undone.
My point is, sensitives listen to their body and thus have better access to their innate body-wisdom; their intuition. The rest of us worship the conscious mind and suppress our intuition by shutting down on body sensations and emotions.
Sensitives have bodies that know things about their environment and the food they are eating. This knowledge generally isn’t something our conscious minds have access to and it may be knowledge science has yet to uncover. This doesn’t mean it isn’t legitimate.
If I give two capsicums to my friend who is a pesticide sensitive, and only one of them is organic, my friend can tell me which is which. She could probably even doing it without eating them and waiting to see which one her body reacts to, because she is a highly attuned sensitive.
Likewise, I can often tell when food has dairy in it without eating it because I can smell it, even when it’s present in fairly small quantities that other people can’t smell.
Empathy and ethics
Sensitives are empaths who are highly attuned to, and sensitive to, the world around them. Is it possible that part of the reason they might react to a food is not just physical? What if the food itself contains a signature, an energetic pattern, a record of that foods history?
If my pesticide sensitivity friend thought about it for a moment, I dare say she would agree that the idea of sourcing food from farms where people and the environment are constantly exposed to damaging chemicals, is not something she really wants to be a part of.
And for me personally, I think my body knew before I did that I didn’t want to be associated in any way with dairy farming. Now that I consciously know what happens on dairy farms, the idea of eating dairy makes my skin crawl. It seems quite apt that dairy gives me eczema.
I really do think our bodies are the barometer of our soul and that conscious eating involves being sensitive not only to our body’s reaction to the food we are consuming, but also a conscious enquiry into where our food has come from and what we are contributing to when we partake of it. Most of us eat unconsciously, never for a moment asking where our food has come from.
We eat super foods without thinking about the biopiracy issues: has a big company ‘stolen’ this food from a culture who is still living close to nature and what impact does this have on that culture?
We eat wheat, never for a moment asking ourselves about the history of wheat, or what might happen if we modify the gene expression of this food so that it produces more gluten.
We eat exotic foods produced in far off lands and without knowing we are eating food gathered by slaves or child labour, or that the food sat in a dirty warehouse gathering mould before it was ‘cleaned’, packaged and sent out to us.
We eat meat nicely packaged in white styrofoam containers and divorce ourselves from the reality that this was once a living being who was born into confinement, crowded alongside its fellow creatures, living in its own excrement, miserable before a violent death. Neither do we think about all the hungry people in the world we could have fed if the grain and corn used to fatten that animal were fed to the starving instead. Or the forests that were cut down to grow that grain to feed that cow, or the mountain of water used and the methane produced.
We drink milk meant for baby calves, without ever asking ourselves who the milk was meant for and what might have happened to the baby, or the sadness of the mother who lost it.
And we are oblivious to the impact our food choices are having on the planet itself.
It’s time for all of us to wake up and become food sensitives, empathically and consciously aware of the way our food choices affect us, other people and the planet we are dependant upon for survival.