Struggling to understand whether you have an allergy or intolerance to a certain food?

There are several mechanisms we can look at to help you understand what may be happening. But please take note, to fully understand your reaction, it is advised to have a professional assessment.

The question remains, is it an allergy or intolerance? There’s a lot of discussion around these two reactions. In order to identify the mechanisms that may cause an intolerance-related reaction, let’s quickly look at the difference of between an allergy and intolerance.
To put it simply, allergy involves the immune system and causes inflammation, intolerance does not.  All non-immune food reactions are referred in clinical practice as a food intolerance.

Several mechanisms have been identified by which food-intolerant reactions may occur:

  1. Pharmacological activity of food
    • The pharmacological activity of food is the result of powerful natural substances in food that release chemicals into our bodies. These are identified as ‘false food allergy’ and can be found in many of our daily foods or drinks.
    • Several examples of these may be:
      • Caffeine
      • Histamine-containing foods. These include fermented cheeses, sausages, tinned food, sauerkraut and spinach
      • Histamine-liberating foods. These foods release histamines from mast cells in the body rather than containing histamines themselves.  Examples of these are egg whites, fish, tomato, chocolate, pork, pineapple, strawberry, papaya, and alcohol.
      • Vasoactive amines. These are natural components of food that can have a drug-like effect on blood vessels and causes them to dilate.
        • Amines include histamine, phenylethylamine (can be found in chocolate) and tyramine (in cheese, yeast extract, banana, liver, sausage, and alcohol to name a few).
  2. Enzyme deficiencies
    • An enzyme deficiency can create build-up of particular food components in the gut or in the blood. Such as lactase deficiency, characterised by abdominal bloating, cramps and frothy diarrhoea.
  3. Hormonal activity of foods
    • Hormonal activity of food has significant variation per person. These include foods containing opium-like proteins. It may also be linked to enzyme deficiency.
    • Foods containing opium-like proteins include wheat and dairy produce. The symptoms associated with opium-like proteins include mood and behaviour disorders, IBS and water retention.
  4. Toxins in food
    • Foods that potentially contain toxic chemicals must be adequately degraded during cooking in order to avoid trouble
      • Examples of these are kidney and other beans. Abdominal cramps are often the result of failing to take this precaution.
  5. Sugars in food
    • The mechanism here is fermentation of undigested and unabsorbed sugars in the intestine. For example, toddlers who drink apple and other fruit juices may experience diarrhoea because of this fermentation. Symptoms may include abdominal discomfort, flatulence and borborygmi (gurgles you hear from your bowels).
  6. Sugars as Refined Carbohydrates
    • An intolerance to refined carbohydrates is caused when sugar levels spike immediately after eating sugar and then falls quickly as the body strives to cope with the extra load. Symptoms of this intolerance may be sweating, fatigue, weakness, hunger, disorientation, lightheadedness and confusion.
  7. Other components of food
    • Indigestible sugars can also be found in vegetables and cause similar fermentation reactions as above. Other active components may also be found such as flavone compounds and fatty food intolerances.
  8. Unknown immune reactions
    • A variety of reactions can lead to many ills through food intolerances from the immune system. Desensitisation for this type of food intolerance is very effective for immune reactions and works by re-educating the immune system in some way.

Learn more about allergies and intolerances in ‘Could it be an Allergy?’. As noted, please see a specialist for assessment in order to fully understand what mechanisms may be causing your reaction.