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Stay in the Wellness Loop | Health and Wellness Articles

Food Intolerance? Allergy? Sensitivity?
Understanding our Reactions to Foods

Dr. Kathleen Mercer BSc ND

Health For Life

What we eat has great effect on how we feel everyday. Sometimes our negative responses to foods are obvious. Nausea, vomiting, bloating, heart burn, and diarrhea are all symptoms that people can often associate with the food they eat. But what about things like headaches, arthritis, low energy, constipation, and skin rashes? These are not as easy to associate with foods. And maybe even more difficult are symptoms of mood changes, mental health issues, endocrine dysfunction and fertility. There are so many things going on in our bodies that can be associated, connected to and caused by our response to foods.

The terms intolerance, allergy and sensitivity are often misused and confused in society and the media therefore making it difficult to understand what our issues with foods are. This article will help to clarify these terms.


When we have an allergy to something, upon exposure of a certain amount of this allergen, we mount an immediate immune response. This means a certain part of our immune system becomes active and the allergen is read in the body as “bad”. This response can be swelling and tingling of the mouth, tongue and throat, hives, flushing of the skin, and vomiting. When we are having an allergic response to something we have eaten, it is an emergency situation and we need to go to the hospital immediately, or make use of an epi-pen previously prescribed. Allergies can be tested with an Allergist via skin exposure tests as well as specific blood work. People with a food allergy should have an epi-pen with them all the time. Allergies may wax and wane over the years and can develop as we age. Small responses can get worse with each continued exposure and what was once just tingling lips can become much stronger and therefore allergies need to be taken quite seriously as they can be life threatening.


When we have intolerance to food, it is often not as easy to define or detect. An intolerance response is activating a different part of our immune system than an allergic response. I use the terminology “delayed hypersensitivity response”. We have an immune reaction to the food, however it is not immediate and therefore adds to the lack of clarity in figuring out what food made us feel a certain way. In a 6-8 hour period, we have eaten a variety of foods and our symptom often present slowly. As well, sometimes food intolerance responses are amount based and food combination based. Intolerance reactions can be on a sliding scale of severity, yet again, making them hard to diagnose. Often with the help of a Naturopathic Doctor you can be guided through an elimination diet or do blood work to define what your food intolerances are. Once intolerant foods are defined, a Naturopathic Doctor can help to build a diet so that you are getting all the nutrients you need as well as help to figure out how to manage your new way of choosing foods in day to day life with things like buying groceries and eating out. Over time with improved health, we may be able to reintroduce some of the foods we previously had to avoid. 

Defining the food intolerance’s is the first step. After that, your Naturopathic Doctor can work with you to heal the gut and calm the immune system from being “hypersensitive”. By avoiding your food intolerances and following guidelines to heal, we often become less sensitive to other environmental allergens and food reactions. General health as well as specific symptoms will improve. I describe it as trying to support the immune system and the gut to become more “hardy”. Then we will be on the path to restoring balance of our physical, mental and emotional health.

© 2016 by Two Ravens Communications Inc.



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