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 Natural Awakenings Lancaster-Berks

Understanding Food Allergies, Sensitivities and Intolerances

Feb 25, 2017 09:07PM ● By Sheila Julson

Food allergies and sensitivities are on the rise, as evidenced by the vast choices of gluten-free, dairy-free and nut-free products that line grocery store shelves. Some may wonder why foods such as wheat—a staple of the human diet for centuries—are today intolerable for so many.

Emily Givler, a Genetic Nutrition Consultant with Tree of Life Health Ministries and a founding board member of GMO Free Lancaster County, sheds some light. “It’s a multifaceted problem. We live in a really toxic world. Our air, soil and water are polluted, our foods come wrapped in plastics and sprayed with chemicals and agricultural chemicals are on the rise,” she explains. “The liver and other organs are inundated with toxins that build up and put a substantial burden on our bodies.”

She also notes a correlation between the rise of genetically modified foods (GMOs) and a spike in food allergies and sensitivities. A consumer demand for cheap and convenient food has also led manufacturers to load products with preservatives, artificial colorings, synthetic flavors and other additives that ultimately affect the gastrointestinal tract and our immune system, opening the door for possible allergies.

Allergies vs. Sensitivities

There are subtle differences between food allergies and sensitivities. “Both are true allergies, but what we usually mean by ‘allergy’ is an immunoglobulin E (IgE) mediated immune system response, or immediate onset allergy. There’s typically a reaction within 45 minutes of eating a food,” Givler says. Affected areas include skin, airways and the gastrointestinal tract; symptoms include anaphylaxis, hives, diarrhea, gas or vomiting almost immediately upon eating the food.

Other categories of food allergies are called food sensitivities, which consist of delayed hypersensitivity reactions that occur anytime from right after eating, to up to five days later. Sensitivities may be more difficult to pinpoint and can affect skin, airways, the gastrointestinal tract, or cause brain fog, migraines, ADD and ADHD.

Givler emphasizes that it’s important to work with the right practitioner to differentiate between food sensitivities and allergies, as some food allergies can be life threatening and require medical interventions such as an EpiPen, prescribed by an allergist.

As a Genetic Nutrition Consultant, Givler says the elimination diet can be a good start for determining food sensitivities. An elimination diet involves cutting out some of the most common allergens such as corn, soy or dairy for a set period of time. If this approach fails, testing may be necessary. Givler recommends Mediator Release Testing (MRT), which flags foods that are creating an immune system or an inflammatory response.

Food Intolerances

Sometimes genetics plays a role in tolerating foods, but that usually won’t be detected during allergy tests if it’s not an immune related response. Different than an allergy or sensitivity, an enzyme deficiency is a completely different mechanism within the body. “With lactose intolerance, your body doesn’t produce enough lactase enzymes to break down the lactose in dairy. The immune system is not involved with that reaction, so it’s not actually an allergy,” she says.

Givler notes another common intolerance is histamine, found in smoked meats, fermented or pickled foods and alcohol. With histamine intolerance, the body lacks the enzyme to break histamine down and can feel much like a food allergy, resulting in itchy skin, hives, eczema, nausea or headaches. While fermented foods—a popular health food trend—are healthful for most people, they can cause discomfort for those with histamine intolerance.

“To complicate it more, you can also be dealing with food allergies, food sensitivities and food intolerances all at the same time,” Givler says. “Doing genetic testing in addition to the MRT testing gives us a much more comprehensive picture of what’s going on in the body.” Nutrigenomics is a relatively new field, and Givler notes that she has been fortunate to have naturopath Bob Miller, of Tree of Life, as a mentor for genetic nutrition studies.

“Genetics is a great way to see vulnerabilities in the body, allowing us to see patterns that may have predisposed someone to these food allergies,” she enthuses. “We all have individual variances, and genetic testing allows you to see what sets you apart from everyone else, targeting more precisely which nutritional interventions are best for you as we journey toward health and wellness.”

Tree of Life Health Ministries is located at 15 Pleasure Rd., in Ephrata. For more information, call 717-733-2003 or visit

Sheila Julson is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and contributor to Natural Awakenings magazines throughout the country.

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