It’s all so confusing! Is it an allergy, intolerance, or sensitivity?

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Our bodies don’t always like the foods we eat and beverages we drink. I’m sure this is no surprise. What can be confusing, though, are the different types of reactions to food and beverages that our body can produce. Understanding the differences can help figure out what is going on. However, even understanding the differences and labels for those responses can be confusing. There isn’t a standard definition of allergy, intolerance, or sensitivity that is agreed upon in the medical community. The definitions I use below are the ones I use with my clients.

The first type of reaction is a true allergy. With a true food allergy, there is an anaphylactic response. This means the person gets an itchy mouth, closing of the esophagus, swelling of the tongue, etc. These require an immediate response, usually with an EpiPen and a trip to the hospital.

Next, are food intolerances. These are when someone is intolerant to a food it is less serious and typically involves digestive issues. For example, lactose intolerance is a food intolerance. You are missing the enzyme lactase that is needed to break down lactose. Irritable bowel syndrome may be a cause of food intolerances. Stress and psychological can come into play – the thought of food can make you sick.

Food sensitivities are when your immune system releases mediators. There are about 100 different mediators that your immune cells can release in response to a food. Mediators can cause inflammation, edema (water retention), mucus secretion, and pain receptor activation among other symptoms. When you eat a food and your immune system responds by releasing mediators you feel a symptom from that food that may not necessarily seem to be related to the food. Some mediators are linked to migraines. Others to IBS. Others seem to be associated with arthritis and other inflammatory conditions.

There is no “gold standard” for food sensitivity testing. That’s another reason that is confusing. However, that doesn’t mean that food sensitivity testing shouldn’t be a tool you can use to figure out what is causing your problems.

Have you been tested for food sensitivities? If so, post your experience below. I’d be interested in hearing about it. If you’re interested in food sensitivity testing or seeing if it is right for you, you can contact me here.

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Dr. Penny



My goal is help you take control of your triggers so you can lead a normal life. I’ve had Irritable Bowel Syndrome for over 14 years. I’ve been told, “It’s all in your head.” And, “You just need to figure out what’s causing your symptoms” without being provided any help to figure it out. I’ve finally gotten my symptoms under control. I want to help you do the same thing. I want to help you get your life back.


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