Apr 04 2021

The Difference between Seasonal Allergies, Food Allergies and Food Intolerance

Published by at 12:56 pm under Allergies

Understand the difference between seasonal allergies, food allergies, and food intolerance.

With allergy season upon us, it’s important to know what to look for and control all that we can through good gut health.   

It is that time of year when environmental allergies can rear their ugly heads and cause us to experience many unpleasant symptoms. Sometimes it is hard to identify if you have allergies from pollen, a food item, or are catching a cold. With Covid-19 still rampant, many mistakes their allergies for this novel Coronavirus. Let’s look at the different types of allergies that plague us, along with food intolerance, all of which stimulate an immune response that leaves us feeling bad.

Environmental Allergies

 Environmental or seasonal allergies are mainly triggered by plant and tree pollen but they can also be the result of pet dander, dust mites, and mold. They can cause a pesky runny nose, sneezing, congestion, and red and watery eyes. They can also lead to allergic asthma or rhinitis. Hay fever is allergic rhinitis that is triggered by pollen primarily in the spring. Allergic asthma, the most common type of asthma, causes one to feel short of breath, wheeze, and cough, along with a tightening feeling in the chest. This overreaction of the immune system causes the airways to tighten and create thick mucus, making it difficult to breathe. 1*

Our bodies react in this way due to an overall, systemic immune response to what it identifies as a foreign invader. The body’s disease-fighting immune cells think these harmless substances are dangerous bacteria or viruses. These immune cells attack’ the allergen, trying to rid it from the body by producing chemicals called IgE antibodies. These antibodies work by binding to the allergen, leading to the release of histamine, which is responsible for many of the allergy symptoms we experience to include stuffy nose, sneezing, watery eyes, swelling, nausea, and diarrhea. When it is severe enough, it can make you feel like you have a cold or even the flu.1*

Food Allergies

“…Every three minutes, a food-related allergic reaction sends someone to the emergency room in the U.S…”. The most common foods that are responsible for 90% of the allergic reactions are milk, eggs, nuts, wheat, soy fish, and shellfish.  In addition to the symptoms above, food allergies can cause hives, swelling, nausea, diarrhea, and swelling. Severe cases can cause the body to go into an extreme reaction called anaphylactic shock, which is a dangerous medical condition. . “…With a food allergy, the immune system overreacts to a particular food causing symptoms that are potentially serious or even life-threatening. In food allergic patients, symptoms begin shortly after ingestion of the food (a few minutes to an hour or so) and include hives, shortness of breath, lightheadedness or vomiting. A food allergy is an immune, not an autoimmune reaction…”(1,2)*

Food intolerances 

While allergic symptoms to food or the environment often appear immediately, food intolerance presents in a different way, taking up to 20 hours to manifest as the food slowly makes its way through the digestive tract. And, unlike an allergy, intolerance

doesn’t cause anaphylactic shock. “…Allergies and intolerances are actually different medical problems because they are caused by different pathways in the body’s processes. Intolerances take longer to manifest, whereas allergies cause a rapid reaction that can sometimes be deadly…” Food intolerance is when the body can’t digest a food properly, leading to such digestive issues as bloating, cramps, constipation, or diarrhea. 1*

The most common food intolerances are caused by lactose, alcohol, and gluten. Lactose intolerance is caused by decreased production of lactase, a protein that breaks down lactose, which is a sugar in milk. Most people during infancy can digest milk. Once we pass childhood, many people stop producing this protein. Many people also have an intolerance to alcohol. Symptoms include a red flush and stuffy nose after consumption which is caused by a decreased production of the protein that breaks down acetaldehyde, resulting in an accumulation of it, making the acetaldehyde more toxic to the system. 1*

Gluten is a protein found primarily in wheat, barley, and rye. Nonceliac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) is a health problem that affects approximately 5% of the population. Celiac disease is a total intolerance to gluten where its sufferers experience autoimmune inflammation in the small intestine that is triggered by gluten, wherein the immune system attacks the body itself, which if left untreated can lead to conditions that affect other systems of the body and can result in chronic fatigue, infertility and even osteoporosis (brittle bones). It is “…an autoimmune condition, where an immune response is directed against one’s own body rather than against foreign substances such as viruses or bacteria. Celiac disease can only develop in those with certain genes called HLA-DQ2 or DQ8. Thirty percent of the population carries these genes. If one does not have these genes, celiac disease cannot develop, but only a small percentage of those with the genes develop celiac disease…” This disease requires the affected individual to cut out all foods that contain gluten from their diets, including bread, cereal, and pasta. (1,3)*

Currently, there is no test for Non-celiac gluten sensitivity. People with gluten sensitivity need to avoid or limit gluten in their diet as much as possible

Gut health and allergies are connected

There are increasing findings that a healthy and diverse gut microbiome is associated with fewer allergic reactions. The rates of allergies have been rising steeply in the last few decades as people continue to settle more and more into urban environments and eating habits have become more “homogenized”. People are outdoors less and exercise less. We have had a history of antibiotic use, which as we know, disrupts the microbiome. All of these things cause our microbiomes to become less diverse, “…decreasing the number of species in the ‘database’ that our immune system can recognize as foreign, yet not overreact, because it knows that they are not harmful…” 1*

While there is a connection between gut health and allergies, there is no gut allergy. Instead, the gut can help mediate the body’s response to an allergen. On the other hand, food intolerances to gluten and lactose do directly affect the gut, but they have different symptoms. There may be more to allergies and food intolerances than we know, and more that can be done than previously thought possible. Gut health and allergies are an active area of research but good nutrition and diet, as well as early interventions, could help future generations be allergy-free. Next time we will look deeper into why there seems to be an increased prevalence of food allergies and intolerances and look at ways we can limit our allergies through fortifying the gut and for future generations.

Healthiest wishes,





  1. https://atlasbiomed.com/blog/microbiome-gut-health-and-allergies/
  2. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/06/190624111545.htm
  3. https://www.aaaai.org/conditions-and-treatments/library/allergy-library/celiac-disease

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