Allergy v. Food Intolerance

June 26, 2019

The words “allergy” and intolerance” are commonly used, but not always accurately used.  Knowing the difference can help you understand your body and how it reacts to certain foods.  This reaction is often, but certainly not always, an intolerance to food, rather than a true allergy.  The easiest way to think about the difference between an allergy and an intolerance, is whether or not the immune system is affected.  In a true case of an allergic reaction, the immune system reacts, causing changes in many organs in the body—sometimes in a life-threatening way. Food intolerance is typically less serious, and many times only involves digestive problems.


Some people with food intolerance are able to eat the food they can’t tolerate, as long as they eat it in small doses, or take medicine that helps them digest the food.  Often, people who are lactose intolerant can take an enzyme that aids in digestion, or find products that are lactose-free. Lactose intolerance is a great way to examine the difference between an allergy and an intolerance.


Some people are allergic to milk, but that is different from being lactose intolerant. People who are allergic to milk have a “malfunctioning immune system,” according to an explanation on the website How Stuff Works. “The immune system identifies milk proteins as harmful “invaders” and releases antibodies called immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies into your bloodstream. These antibodies then release histamine, which causes milk allergy symptoms. Lactose intolerance, on the other hand, is caused by your stomach’s inability to properly digest lactose, which is sugar found in milk. Your small intestine doesn’t produce enough of the enzyme lactase. This enzyme is essential for the proper digestion of milk and the absorption of milk nutrients. This difficulty with digestion results in lactose intolerance symptoms.”

This illustration is helpful to consider when trying to distinguish between an allergy and an intolerance.  According the Mayo Clinic, there are a variety of causes of food intolerance. These include:

  • -Absence of an enzyme needed to fully digest a food. Lactose intolerance is a common example.
  • -Irritable bowel syndrome. This chronic condition can cause cramping, constipation and diarrhea.
  • -Sensitivity to food additives. For example, sulfites used to preserve dried fruit, canned goods and wine can trigger asthma attacks in sensitive people.
  • -Recurring stress or psychological factors. Sometimes the mere thought of a food may make you sick. The reason is not fully understood.
  • -Celiac disease. Celiac disease has some features of a true food allergy because it involves the immune system. However, symptoms are mostly gastrointestinal, and people with celiac disease are not at risk of anaphylaxis. This chronic digestive condition is triggered by eating gluten, a protein found in wheat and other grains.


How to Tell the Difference

The best way to know if you have an allergy or an intolerance to a certain food is to talk to your health care provider.  One method that is gaining popularity is Advanced Allergy Therapeutics (AAT). AAT seeks to treat the symptoms the organs experience, rather than the immune system.  This method, according to Striving for Health, is a holistic therapy that “is a clinically proven treatment that is highly effective in relieving the many symptoms associated with allergies and sensitivities. It is a therapeutic approach that was developed from over 16 years of clinical research. AAT treatment does not rely on the use of medications, herbal remedies or supplements. The treatment is safe, painless and available to all ages including infants.”  It uses gentle pressure on places in the body that correspond to the organ that is reacting.  This pressure, combined with a small amount of the allergen causes the reaction to subside. One caveat to keep in mind is that this treatment should not be used for anaphylactic reactions.

Allergy testing, AAT, food journals (along with recording resulting symptoms), food elimination diets and blood tests are all methods your provider may use to get more information about your symptoms. Hopefully these pieces of information lead to a conclusive answer regarding whether you are allergic or simply not tolerating a food.

About the author

Kimberly Distilli

Kimberly Distilli, R.N. and founder of Wellness Balance, has spent almost three decades in the medical field. Kimberly devoted her life to taking care of others but it wasn’t until she became seriously ill with breast cancer that she discovered the impact of alternative, non-invasive therapies such as cold laser therapy, alkaline water, cellular cleansing and neurotoxin release. To learn more visit us online, or call 703-371-1104.