Intolerances vs Allergies: do you know the difference?

Intolerances vs Allergies: do you know the difference?

March 19, 2024

These two terms are often used interchangeably to indicate that a substance or food can have negative health effects. In reality, they are two quite different conditions, with different causes and symptoms. It is important to be informed about these differences to prevent health problems or to adapt your diet to your current and future needs.

Intolerances and allergies: the main differences

One difference is that an allergic reaction has severe consequences that can, in some cases, lead to death. This happens because with allergies, the immune system identifies the substance you have come into contact with as an "enemy" and starts producing antibodies (IgE antibodies) to fight it. Usually, the allergic reaction occurs immediately or after a few minutes. This reaction of our body is often exaggerated and generates various symptoms of varying severity, such as hives, itching, swelling, shortness of breath, and anaphylaxis. Some of these symptoms require urgent medical attention.

Often, even tiny amounts of the substances you are allergic to are enough to trigger a reaction. Therefore, if you already know you are allergic, you obviously need to be careful not to come into contact with the allergen, since anaphylactic shock could be life-threatening.

Intolerances manifest when the body cannot digest a type of food or substance. In this case, the digestive system, not the immune system, is responsible for the adverse reaction. Intolerances occur when our body lacks the specific enzymes to digest or assimilate certain types of food, such as lactose intolerance, caused by the absence of the lactase enzyme. Since the substance cannot be metabolised or digested, it provokes an intense reaction from the digestive system.

This reaction can occur shortly after ingestion or even days later, so it is not always easy to identify the substance or food you might be intolerant to. The symptoms of food intolerances are varied and mostly affect the digestive system: gas, bloating, diarrhoea, etc. These are not dangerous symptoms, but they do affect your quality of daily life.

The symptoms of intolerance can be nonspecific and common to various conditions, making diagnosis more complex. Additionally, the variable reaction time can hinder identification of the culprit food. In the table below you will find a sum-up pf main differences:

The 'Elimination Diet'

Often when symptoms appear that could be due to an intolerance or an allergy, but the food responsible for this reaction cannot be identified, the doctor might advise us to follow an elimination diet. An elimination diet, as its name suggests, is a type of diet that involves eliminating foods that usually cause allergies and intolerance. These same foods are reintroduced into the diet, one at a time, paying attention to the reappearance of symptoms.

If no symptoms occur when reintroducing a food, then it probably won’t be the food triggering the reaction, so we move on to the next food.

In this way, you can get an idea of the foods to which you are sensitive, allergic, or intolerant.

This type of diet should only be done under the supervision of a nutritionist or a doctor, as having a varied diet with the right intake of calories and nutrients is the first step to feeling good.

How a nutritional intolerance test can help you

Taking a genetic test for intolerance to certain substances can help you understand your level of predisposition to intolerance or your ability to metabolise certain nutrients. This information is valuable because it allows you to adapt your diet and lifestyle based on your genetic predispositions. Often, with a specific diet, it is even possible to prevent the development of intolerances. Information and awareness are the foundation for informed and targeted choices.

It is important to mention that being predisposed to developing an intolerance does not necessarily mean it will develop. So, in case of a positive result on a nutrigenetic test, do not worry, and always remember to consult a doctor before making decisions that could affect your health.

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