Food Allergies

An allergy to one or more types of food is a daily reality for many of us. Food Allergy Canada estimates about 2.5 million people in Canada suffer from food allergies, and a large number of these are young children under three.1 The effects of food allergies can range from frustrating to deadly. Alarmingly, the prevalence of food allergies is growing. This may arise from a number of factors, including unhealthy diets and limited exposure to many natural food types.

Food allergies are not the same as food sensitivities

In the media, the terms food allergies, food sensitivities, and food intolerances are often used interchangeably. However, this is not accurate. While food sensitivities and food intolerances can refer to the same condition, these two differ from food allergies in several key ways.


Food Allergies Are an Acute Event

When triggered, food allergies, sometimes called true food allergies - are an acute event. This means the obvious symptoms are short term, usually lasting for less than 48 hours and often less than six hours. On the other hand, the apparent symptoms caused by a food intolerance, can endure for a week or more.


Food Allergy Symptoms Are Generally Severe

True allergic reactions may result in hives, facial swelling, and even anaphylaxis. Anaphylaxis is an especially severe allergic response characterized by difficulty breathing, altered heart rate, and/or unconsciousness. It can be life-threatening and requires the administration of epinephrine and immediate medical attention.


Food Sensitivity Symptoms  

Food sensitivity / intolerance  symptoms are typically limited to the gastrointestinal system. They include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain. While these symptoms may be quite distressing and painful, they are rarely life-threatening.


Triggers Vary Too

The triggers for food allergies and food sensitivities also differ. A true food allergy is almost always caused by one of more proteins in the allergen food. For example, a milk allergy could be triggered by the protein casein. For this reason, it is extremely rare to have a true allergy to protein-sparse foods, such as spinach or strawberries. Food sensitivities are not always mediated by proteins, it is possible to be sensitive to almost any food. Furthermore, food sensitivities are often not triggered by a food itself, but rather by an additive like a colouring, pesticide, coating, or artificial flavour. In the example above, a person who is not milk-allergic may still be sensitive to milk due to the lactose sugar, a chocolate flavouring, artificial whitening enhancers, or presence of bovine hormones.


Food allergies may be linked to obesity

There is evidence to suggest that both food allergies and food sensitivities may contribute to weight gain and obesity. Obesity has long been known to cause a general decline in health, but many doctors have assumed that a rise in food allergies and sensitivities was due to obesity, not the other way around.
The reality is that many instances of obesity are likely the result of a complex relationship between an unhealthy Western diet, gut bacteria, and inflammation. In one study, researchers purposely fed mice a high-fat diet. This diet increased toxin production among bacteria in the gut. These toxins, in turn, led to inflammation, replicating the same effect seen when a person ingests food that triggers an allergy or intolerance. The toxins easily passed through the gut and caused systemic inflammation and obesity, along with other problems like diabetes and heart disease.5
Dr. Mark Hyman, a functional medicine physician, has seen this same phenomenon in his own patients. He maintains that eating a healthy, high-fibre diet and balancing gut bacteria through the use of probiotics can help avoid inflammation from food intolerances and allergies, contributing to weight reduction and better overall health.6


Traditional medicine says there is no cure yet for food allergies and has little to offer in the way of mitigation, other than avoidance. However, Functional Medicine is different. This medical discipline takes a comprehensive approach to food allergies. For instance, after listening to her patients and learning about their problems and histories, Dr. Lynne Murfin begins treatment of their food allergies by having her patients remove potential allergens from their diet.

Next, she recommends specific probiotics along with a diet designed to replace the good bacteria in the gut. But even with a replenished load of good bacteria, the gut still needs to be repaired. Dr. Murfin achieves this by adding supplements and minerals that promote gut healing, like zinc, glutamine, and antioxidants. Of course, these are given only after testing and consultation.

Lifestyle is just as important as supplements and bacteria for gut health. That’s why Dr. Murfin will recommend de-stressing techniques to her food allergy patients. She also provides lifestyle education at her practice to further this goal. Finally, continuous testing is important so that changes in the gut and the body at large can be accurately monitored and evaluated. In addition to traditional blood tests, Dr. Murfin also employs stool laboratory testing, as this can give a precise picture of gut bacterial status, food allergies, and overall gut health.

Next Steps

Functional Medicine is uniquely positioned to address food allergies and their consequences. Functional medicine physicians use expert testing to identify potential food allergies and make use of their experience and training in providing comprehensive advice on avoiding potential allergy triggers. Since functional medicine physicians look at the big picture and interplay among all the body’s systems and environmental factors, they are also able to help their patients manage their gut bacteria, reduce inflammation, and live healthier lives.

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