Many people believe that food allergies and food intolerances are the same thing. This leads people to mistakenly assume they must avoid the offending food they ‘think’ they are allergic to. Naturopath and enzyme educator for Enzymedica UK, Leyla Moudden, reveals the top four myths about food intolerances and food allergies, helping shed some light on how you can find your way back to food freedom.
1. A food allergy is the same as an ‘intolerance’ or ‘sensitivity’
The key difference between allergy and intolerance is the body system that is involved in the reaction. An allergic reaction involves the immune system, whilst an intolerance reaction involves the digestive system.
Let’s take allergy first: the immune system is like an army, with attackers, defenders and weapons. Its favourite weapon is inflammation. When an invader like a virus or bacteria enters the body, the immune system rushes to the site of invasion and inflames it. This inflammation calls the fighters of the immune system to kill the bacteria or virus and protect the body.
For food allergies, the immune system believes an innocent food is an invader, but because there is no real invader, the body attacks and inflames itself, leading to swelling. In mild allergies, this happens in a particular area of the body, like the nose and eyes in the case of hay fever. However, in severe cases, the whole body becomes inflamed at high speed, closing airwaves and preventing breathing. A real allergy is severe and is usually identified very early on in life. In mild cases, an antihistamine will be helpful, whilst in extreme cases, a person with an allergy must always carry an adrenaline injector in case they experience a life-threatening reaction. A person with a good allergy must also always avoid the food they are allergic to.An intolerance reaction is entirely different and does not involve the immune system. During an intolerance reaction, the digestive system is responsible for the uncomfortable symptoms in the gut. The digestive system is like a sophisticated blender whose job is to break food down into microscopically small molecules. As there are no blades in the digestive system, it uses chemicals to break down food. As well as stomach acid, specialist chemicals called enzymes work within the digestive system to break down specific molecules. This combination of acid and enzymes works as a chemical blender to liquefy food into its smallest parts. When there is a lack of acids or enzymes, the body tries to break down food but lacks the tools it needs to do a good job, leading to tummy troubles.
This intolerance reaction occurs because food molecules that should be tiny end up passing through the digestive system as larger molecules. Once they leave the stomach, the intestines get upset because the stomach hasn’t effectively broken the food down. We feel this intestinal upset as bloating, tummy ache, gas, constipation, or diarrhoea. At this stage, many of us believe we are experiencing an allergy. However, we are actually experiencing a lack of digestive power because we lack either strong stomach acid or a digestive enzyme.
2. You can never outgrow a food intolerance
Intolerance reactions are usually the result of the body lacking a digestive enzyme. The reason can be down to genetics, lifestyle, stress, a natural age-related decline in digestive juices, dehydration, or diet. Many enzymes need nutrients to work properly, so a deficiency in specific nutrients can disrupt our body’s enzyme production. For example, we use zinc for over 300 different enzymatic reactions in our bodies.
As a person becomes healthier and their digestive system gets more robust and better at breaking down food, the strength, power and frequency of their intolerance reactions can fade and become milder or disappear entirely. This is especially true if the intolerance is relatively recent (within the last five years) or began after the age of 40. In cases where the intolerance is new, supplementing with digestive enzymes can substantially reduce the intolerance reaction. As a result, this gives us greater food freedom.
3. It is possible to eliminate food intolerances
Some intolerances are genetic, meaning we will never produce the enzyme needed to digest the intolerance. Lactose intolerance is a perfect example of this, as it is due to the lack of an enzyme called lactase. A person who is genetically missing lactase will always be lactose intolerant. As lactose is difficult to avoid, taking a digestive enzyme supplement containing lactase can help by reducing the strength of the reaction.
For ‘new’ intolerances, especially those that appear after age 40, adding a digestive enzyme to your diet can eliminate or significantly reduce the intolerance reaction, as this is highly likely to be an age-related decline in digestive capacity. Common enzyme-related intolerances that fall into this category include beans and gluten.
On the other hand, children with food intolerances can outgrow their intolerance because their digestive system gets stronger as they grow.
4. Lactose intolerance and milk allergies are the same
Milk allergy is an immune system response to cow’s milk protein. Lactose intolerance is a digestive system reaction and is experienced as tummy troubles resulting from a missing digestive enzyme called lactase. It is uncomfortable but not life-threatening.
If you are struggling with a food intolerance and are finding it difficult to completely avoid the food that is triggering you, a well formulated digestive enzyme supplement such as Lacto by Enzymedica (£25.29) can significantly reduce the severity of the intolerance reaction.