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Gastrointestinal Issues: Allergy, Disease, or Intolerance?

Updated: Aug 16

Allergies, diseases, and intolerances can all play a role in gastrointestinal discomfort and can range from irritating to debilitating and may even require hospitalization. Each of these conditions is unique and varies in etiology, yet they sometimes share overlapping symptoms. Each condition contributes to decreased quality of life, productivity, and increased frequency of hospitalizations.

Allergies differ from intolerance and disease. An allergy or allergic reaction is the result of the body’s immune system using antibodies in identifying and targeting a foreign substance (ie, a protein, drug, food, animal hair or secretion, etc..) as an opponent or enemy of the body. Then, an immune response is triggered to rid the body of the invading substance. Typically, the reaction results in inflammation throughout the body and can present as slight/minor irritation to anaphylaxis (a life-threatening condition). Most allergies cannot be cured and their etiology is unknown; however, most allergic reactions can be prevented through careful diet monitoring and through treatment medications if the allergen is consumed. Additionally, wearing a medical alert bracelet/necklace is a good practice in the case of severe allergies should you become unable to communicate.

Gastrointestinal (GI) diseases are sometimes mistaken for an allergy or intolerance, as they have overlapping symptoms. A GI disease is a limitation or alteration from normal function (functional and/or structural) within any point of the digestive tract chronic or acute. Common examples include Chron’s Disease, Diverticulosis/Diverticulitis, Celiac Disease, lactose intolerance, acid reflux/GERD, irritable bowel syndrome, diarrhea, and incontinence. Each one of the diseases can be tested for and diagnosed. Each of this diseases is unique and typically requires a tailored treatment plan from a multidisciplinary team (such as a doctor and dietitian).

Intolerances are different than GI diseases and allergies, although intolerances sometimes displays similar symptoms. Intolerances do not cause an allergic reaction, nor are they the result of disease. Intolerances are the result of the digestive system’s inability to break down or digest certain foods. For example, lactose intolerance is the result of the digestive tract not containing the enzyme lactase to break down the lactose in to a useable form for the body to absorb. The resulting consequences of food intolerances typically include bloating, gas, diarrhea, and discomfort; however, intolerances are typically not a life-threatening condition. The most common way to effectively determine the culprit of intolerance (besides lab testing) is through an elimination diet, such as the FODMAP diet. Anyone planning an elimination diet should engage in regular counseling with a dietitian.

Each condition discussed has a unique etiology and requires testing by a qualified medical professional to accurately diagnose. Treatment for these conditions is best carried out through a multidisciplinary team. If you would like to learn more about any of these conditions or have questions, please reach out!

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