Diving deeper into the gut, this week we are going to be discussing the difference between a food allergy and an intolerance/sensitivity and what to do about it. Our goal in this is article (and most of our articles) is not just to give you information, but to empower you about practical steps that you can take to possibly help reverse some of your health conditions. So … on with our walk through the confusing land of food allergies.

A food allergy is defined as an immune system reaction that occurs after ingesting, or sometimes even being exposed to a certain food. A food allergy typically affects multiple systems in the body like breathing or skin and can be life threatening. Food allergies can be detected by skin or blood testing. Reaction to a food will come on suddenly and happen every time you ingest a certain food and often does not take a large amount to be a trigger. Food allergies can come and go with age with seemingly no reason for their entrance or exit.

A food sensitivity is similar, but there are some differences that make it more difficult to figure out. Though many authorities say that a sensitivity typically manifests in gut level reactions, I have seen many cases where a food sensitivity starts in the gut but like an allergy will also show up as a skin reaction or even a mood reaction (as we discussed in our article about gluten and mood). A food intolerance is typically (though not always) unpredictable. Unlike a true food allergy which should manifest symptoms every time you are exposed, a sensitivity may not always show symptoms every time you eat the food. Food sensitivity can also be based on quantity. While you might be able to handle a small amount of a certain food, large amounts could trigger a reaction. And perhaps the component unique to food sensitivity that makes it the most challenging is timing. A food sensitivity can take several days to show symptoms! I have seen clients who have a sensitivity to dairy show up 3 days after ingestion with anxiety reactions, so if you think a food sensitivity might be an issue, keep reading for some practical tips on how to detect and possibly heal this condition.

The cause of both of these conditions is widely unknown, but it is becoming more commonly thought that leaky gut is a contributor to both, but more commonly food sensitivities. Leaky gut occurs when the lining of the intestinal tract becomes damaged, making it permeable to substances that should not be passing through. When this happens, substances that should not cross into the bloodstream like undigested food particles, fats, amino acids, and sugars enter where they don’t belong, causing the body’s defense system to go on overdrive which causes undesirable symptoms. This can lead to symptoms as widespread as headaches, joint pain, fatigue, ibs symptoms, gas, bloating, mood changes, etc.

Now that we have laid the groundwork for what food allergies and sensitivities are, let’s get down to the business of figuring them out and healing the gut. Remember that food allergies (most likely fast reaction and happen consistently when you ingest certain foods) are best diagnosed by a physician, so the first step if you have these symptoms, the first step is to get allergy tested. If your allergy tests are negative, move on to step 2, identifying food sensitivities.

  • The first step in identifying a food sensitivity is to realize what symptoms are not “normal.” Just because a symptom is common does not make it something that the body was designed to feel. Headaches, joint pain, stomach issues, mood swings are now “normal” just because they are common. Our bodies were designed to function optimally without these symptoms, so be aware that when you experience them, your body is trying to tell you something.
  • Step 2 is to make a list of your symptoms. Be aware of things that have become normal for you because you have experienced them for a long time.
  • Step 3 is to start playing detective. It can be challenging at first because you probably eat a variety of foods. The first step in being a detective is to log your food and your symptoms. Remember the 3 day window with symptoms, so pay attention and be patient. Take the major offenders out of your diet. Wheat and dairy are the most common offenders for inflammation, and they play a role in the majority of joint pain/brain fog/mood challenges that I commonly see. If you don’t notice a significant difference after 2-3 weeks without these foods, keep them out and move to the next group of foods. Food additives (processed foods), colors/dyes, nitrites, sulfites (dried fruit and wine), and believe it or not even certain meats can cause food sensitivity reactions. Always challenge foods in classes (like nuts) and get more specific as you need to. If you need help, consult a wellness professional that can look at your food daily and help you play detective if it gets overwhelming.
  • Step 4 – Once your symptoms have subsided, start adding foods back systematically to see which ones cause symptoms. Challenge only one food per week as the symptoms can show up 3 days after ingestion. Be careful not to cross contaminate by adding back more than one food class at a time. This process can be tedious, but there is freedom on the other side when you live a life free of the symptoms, so hang in there.
  • Step 5 – Repeat steps 3 and 4 until you identify what food/foods are causing the reactions. Keep those foods out for at least 6 months before attempting to re-introduce them. This allows your gut to heal so that you can potentially tolerate them better. When you have been eating inflammatory producing foods for a long time, your body often needs a break to heal before you can handle them again. Even when you do add them back, it is good to use caution with quantity and frequency. If they caused inflammation, there is a good chance that your body will revert back to its inflamed state if you eat them too often, so be aware of your symptoms.

Heart with Leaf


  • This step will take more than a week, but start step one today. Identifying food sensitivities is key to living a life that physically and mentally feels better. I am seeing increasingly more mood symptoms linked to food sensitivities, so make sure that you put that on your list of symptoms as well. Reach out for support if you need it. Be patient with yourself and with the process. Develop a healing perspective on your body, not just one that is short term in nature. This process takes time, but freedom from symptoms is worth it!