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Do you experience discomfort when consuming dairy and so you only buy lactose-free products? But are you lactose intolerant or dairy sensitive? And what’s the difference?

Dairy sensitivity is an immune response to certain milk proteins. If you are dairy sensitive, your immune system recognizes these proteins as harmful and triggers an inflammatory response to neutralize them. So, the next time you consume dairy, your immune system is being signaled to react and release certain chemicals, causing different allergic symptoms.

Lactose intolerance doesn’t involve your immune system. If you are lactose intolerant, you may be deficient in the digestive enzyme lactase that is needed for digestion of lactose, a sugar found in dairy products.

So, should you continue consuming lactose-free products or do you need to completely give up dairy?

Here is a summary of the main characteristics of food allergies, food sensitivities and food intolerances, as well as the difference between them:


The term was created back in 1906 as a combination of the Greek words for ‘different, other” and ‘activity”. Allergy is a state of altered immune reactivity. Altered immune reaction means that the body responds in an exaggerated way to an agent that is actually harmless (that is the altered part). It is an acquired immune response (an immune response specifically directed against an antigen) that is inappropriate to the stimulus.


There are different factors that play role in the development of any allergy, and often more than one are present. Some of them are:

  • Genetic predisposition
  • Toxic loads
  • Poor nutrition or digestion
  • In utero exposures
  • Biochemical individuality (for example a more permeable gut or sensitive immune responses)
  • Stress/chronic stress
  • Chronic illness
  • Greater need for certain nutrients that are not met by diet

Food allergies involve the immune system and antibody production. They have the most immediate and potentially severe response (an immediate IgE response) in which IgE antibodies are produced against a specific substance. This substance could be foods such as peanuts, eggs, seafood, or other allergens such as pollens, dust, mold, bee sting, sulfides. If you have an allergy and you encounter the allergen, the symptoms would appear almost immediately, between a few seconds and 2 hours.

The allergy reaction can be localized or general, mild or severe. It can affect any tissue in the body – in the skin, in mucosa (for example in the gut or respiratory tracts), in the tonsils, etc. When re-exposed to the allergen, the allergic reaction takes place in what is known as the ‘shock tissue’. According to some sources, the 4 signs of inflammation are always present in an allergic reaction, namely swelling, heat, redness and pain.

Common types of allergy reactions are:

  • Atopic eczema
  • Extrinsic asthma
  • Hay fever

Common symptoms are:

  • Edema
  • Runny nose
  • Watery eyes
  • Itching
  • Hives
  • Rashes
  • Abdominal pain
  • Vomiting
  • Increased heart rate
  • Anaphylactic reaction *

*Sometimes the immune response may be so strong that it could be triggered by just the smallest amount of allergen (such as the smell of the food). In the severest form, the IgE travels through the bloodstream, causing the whole body to react to the allergen. The result is a massive fluid outpouring from the circulation into the tissues. The blood volume drops, resulting in hypovelomic or hypotensive shock. The severe tissue swelling and bronchospasm can disrupt the breathing. This is known as an anaphylactic reaction.

Those that are prone to anaphylactic reaction often carry an epi-pen. It contains epinephrine, which narrows blood vessels in the attempt to raise the blood pressure, increases the heart rate and stroke volume, and in high doses, causes bronchodilation. The effects can be life-saving, but only last for about 20 minutes, that’s why the person must be taken to a hospital as soon as possible.

Can you overcome allergies?

It’s important to note that the IgE’s memory lasts a lifetime. In order to avoid allergy reactions, the person needs to stay away from the offending allergen. Moreover, with each encounter the severity of the reaction might increase.

Prevention? How can you test for potential allergies?

You can make a blood test or skin test for suspected allergies. The blood tests measure the presence of IgE antibodies in the blood for about 160 different foods. In skin tests small amounts of the allergens are placed on the skin of your arms or back in a grid pattern. The skin is then pricked where the allergens are placed. After a specific amount of time, the skin is evaluated for severity of reaction.


Like allergies, food sensitivity is an immune-mediated response. The difference is that food sensitivities can result in a more delayed response, or IgG, which can take up to 72 hours. As the symptoms are usually delayed, it is often difficult to make a connection between the immune response and the food that caused it.

Another typical characteristic of food sensitivities is that you may be able to digest a small amount of the food without any reactions. However, eating that food every day or in bigger amounts would gradually increase the inflammation in your body to the point that your health is compromised and reactions start appearing. Symptoms appear when allergic load is reached. This means that you need to be exposed to a certain level of the allergen before symptoms are triggered. So the ‘barrel’ has to be filled with enough ingested allergen to result in a reaction.

Dysbiosis and food sensitivities:

There is a strong connection between food sensitivities and dysbiosis as well as leaky gut. Dysbiosis develops when there is an imbalance between the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ bacteria in the gut flora. When one has a severely leaky gut, proteins from anything they eat can cross the gut barrier and interact with the immune system. The more damaged your gut barrier and the more activated your immune system, the more likely you will develop food sensitivities. Food sensitivities involve the formation of IgGs antibodies. IgGs form in response to partially digested products that have been absorbed through a leaky gut wall created by chronic dysbiosis. The IgGs attach to these circulating absorbed substances (most often protein) and can thus create inflammation in any part of the body.

The development of food sensitivities is the result of an interaction between food allergens, the gastrointestinal tract and the immune system. It is important to note that if you have developed food sensitivities, over time, you may also become significantly more prone to other health problems.

Common symptoms are:

  • Water retention
  • Fatigue
  • Brain fog
  • Mood swings
  • Personality changes
  • Muscle cramps
  • Bloody nose
  • Chronic sore throat
  • Constipation or diarrhea
  • Bloating
  • Irritable bowel
  • Eczema
  • Asthma
  • Urticaria
  • Rheumatic pains
  • Headaches and migraines

There are also typical symptoms seen in children, that are strongly connected to food sensitivities and, unfortunately, often mistreated. Some of these symptoms are:

  • Chronic ear infections
  • Hyperactivity alternating with fatigue
  • Hypoglycemia
  • Asthma
  • Learning difficulties
  • Bedwetting
  • Dark circles under the eyes
  • Susceptibility to infections

Most common food sensitivities:

  • Wheat
  • Dairy
  • Eggs
  • Soy
  • Peanuts
  • Citrus
  • Corn
  • Nightshades (such as tomatoes, peppers, eggplants etc.)
  • Shellfish
  • Chocolate
  • Strawberries

The good news:

Food sensitivities can be reversed. The IgG memory for the allergen may only last about three months so if the dysbiosis can be resolved and the offending food avoided for this period, digestion will improve and the hypersensitivity will cease. So, previously allergenic foods may be reintroduced.

Once you have eliminated all the foods you are sensitive to from your diet, you should start to see improvement and you should be able to reintroduce these foods back into your diet as early as 6 months later. Unlike food allergies, food sensitivities are transient. This means that by staying away from these foods for an extended period, along with healing your gut, you’ll be able to eat most of them in the future without problems.


Unlike allergies and sensitivities, food intolerances don’t involve the immune system and antibody production. A food intolerance simply implies a digestive irritation. You may develop food intolerances when your body can’t digest certain foods (such as dairy or gluten) or when your digestive system becomes irritated by them. And this usually happens as a result of enzyme deficiencies, or the inability to process or metabolize a substance (which can be a result of inflammation, damage to the gut, strain on the liver, or damage to other tissues). Food intolerances can develop against any food and may be difficult to diagnose. The best way to find out what you are intolerant for, is through an elimination diet.

The most common intolerances are:

  • FODMAP (Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides And Polyols – short-chain carbohydrates that are poorly absorbed by the small intestine)
  • Histamine intolerance (or intolerance for histamine-rich foods)
  • Sulfite intolerance
  • Salicylate intolerance
  • Other intolerances due to an autoimmune condition

It’s important to note: It is actually possible that you have both, a food sensitivity and a food intolerance. Therefore, even after elimination of certain foods, you can still experience a reaction.

Similar to food sensitivities, food intolerances could lead to the following symptoms:

  • Bloating
  • Fatigue
  • Brain fog
  • Joint or muscle pain
  • Anxiety or depression
  • Itching, rashes
  • IBS
  • Stomach pain
  • Flu-like symptoms
  • Runny nose
  • Migraines
  • Heart palpitations

So, if you experience any of these symptoms and suspect that you may not a very good friend with certain foods, then you may need to be patient and try an elimination diet. This is how you can figure out what triggers the symptoms. It might be challenging and you might need a support throughout the process. But once you figure it, out you will feel so much better. You will build a digestive strength that will make you healthier and will allow you to be more flexible in your diet, as well as improve your mood and overall well-being.