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June 2024 Newsletter

Food Allergy, Sensitivity, or Intolerance?

Hello, this is Dr. Ellen. In this month’s ‘Real Common Sense’ newsletter, I want to describe what food allergies are, and then contrast that with the much more prevalent food sensitivities and food intolerances. The difference is not just a matter of semantics; each is a different type of problem.

By the way, if you haven’t had a chance to see my previous newsletters, you can find them on my website, www.drellencutler.com under ‘Media’.

What is a Food Allergy?

Most of us are familiar with the word allergy, which in everyday parlance has previously referred to sneezing with a runny nose and watery eyes but without a fever or other significant symptoms. Here, the word allergy is being used synonymously with the term ‘hay fever’. In cases of hay fever, airborne pollen from a specific grass or tree is most commonly cited as the cause of symptoms. In such cases, the pollen is referred to as an allergen. Since these bloom at certain times of the year, symptoms are usually seasonal. However, there can be one or more different allergens that produce the symptoms of hay fever. Interestingly, none of the allergens may actually be pollen, especially when the symptoms occur year-round.

Today, the word allergy has become increasingly used in the phrase ‘food allergy’. This phrase is commonly used to describe an unexpected and undesired reaction to a food or a substance contained in that food that in most other people would cause no problems whatsoever. These and other types of ‘allergies’ can cause a wide diversity of complaints. However, a true food allergy can cause significant problems and may even lead to an anaphylactic reaction. The classic scenario of this is potentially life-threatening difficulty breathing with very low blood pressure following exposure to the food allergen, such as peanuts or seafood. These are referred to as Type I hypersensitivity reactions. To a medically trained allergist, these are the ‘true’ food allergies. They are mediated by a particular class of antibodies, IgE immunoglobulins, which are specific to each allergen. They happen acutely, within one hour of ingesting even a few molecules of the allergen, and can adversely affect the digestive system, skin, and, as mentioned, the airways. Fortunately, true food allergies are uncommon, affecting about 1-2% of the population.(1,2) Those with a known history of such a severe reaction should carry a self-injectable device with a dose of epinephrine in case of emergency and be prepared to go to an Emergency Department.

What is a Food Sensitivity?

The immune system is very diverse in the types of reactions of which it is capable. There appear to be many reactions to various substances that are mediated by antibodies other than IgE immunoglobulins. Some food sensitivities are believed to involve IgG and IgM immunoglobulins. However, some food sensitivities are not mediated by antibodies, but instead involve other immune mechanisms or even non-immune mediators. Some authors consider food intolerances (see below) as a non-immune mediated type of food sensitivity. Food sensitivities have been estimated to affect 20 to 30% of the population. They can affect any organ system of the body. The resulting symptoms are typically not life-threatening per se, but they can be quite problematic and significantly impact and complicate one’s health and life. Symptoms can begin up to 3 or more days after ingesting the food trigger, and the symptoms are often ongoing. Unfortunately, laboratory serum testing often leaves food sensitivities undiagnosed or misdiagnosed.(1,2)

What is a Food Intolerance?

Unlike food allergies or many food sensitivities, food intolerances do not involve a response from the immune system but are rather a result of the body’s inability to process or digest specific foods. In general, it is estimated that up to 20% of the world’s population may have a food intolerance.  The most common food intolerance appears to be to lactose (milk sugar), which is found in dairy products. It results from the absence of the digestive enzyme lactase in the intestines. As we get older, our ability to digest dairy products naturally decreases, because the infant’s and then the young child’s need for breast (or other) milk diminishes and eventually disappears. As a result, when we consume milk or dairy products, if lactase is not being produced, lactose is not digested. This can cause stomach bloating, inflammation, and diarrhea. Interestingly, research has found that worldwide, only about one third of people can digest lactose beyond the age of about seven or eight.(2,3)

Another common food intolerance is gluten. This should not be confused with celiac disease, an autoimmune disease in which the immune system attacks the small intestine when gluten is ingested, causing significant harm to the digestive system. Gluten intolerance causes similar but milder symptoms compared to celiac disease, involving the gastrointestinal tract, and can cause headaches, fatigue, joint pain, and skin rash. It is felt that gluten intolerance can result in non-gastrointestinal problems because gluten can cause a separation of the tight junctions between the cells lining the gut, thus leading to a leaky gut.(3)

Some of the other most common food intolerances are to caffeine, salicylates (natural chemicals produced by many plants as a defense against insects and disease), FODMAPs (which are fermentable oligo-, di-, mono-saccharides and polyols; found in many different foods), and sulfites (used during the processing of a number of different foods as a preservative).(3)

Ellen Cutler Method (ECM)

In my clinical practice, I have had many opportunities to use ECM energetic testing methods to determine if an individual has reactivities to any specific foods or substances contained within them.In my energetic work, food reactivities include food allergies, sensitivities, and intolerances. Also, I will use the word sensitivity interchangeably with reactivity, thus giving it a much broader definition than above. When used in this way, I have found that more than 80% of my patients have one and usually several energetic food sensitivities.

One can be energetically sensitive to many things, including foods. Oftentimes, sensitivities are very complex and multilayered. It is extremely important to understand the details of that complexity in order to help each individual when using the ECM desensitization techniques. These techniques are specifically tailored to energetically clear sensitivities, making certain to also clear their related and underlying reactivities. I am very happy to report that I have had many successes using ECM in those with food reactivities. Nonetheless, for those with a known history of Type I hypersensitivity reactions and/or anaphylaxis, I always recommend they carry a self-injectable dose of epinephrine in case of emergency and to be prepared to go to an Emergency Department.

Please be well, be healthy, and remember…

“Food allergies and food sensitivities don’t have to be life-or-death to be taken seriously.”

― Lindsey Janeiro

Dr. Ellen


  1. “Sensitivities vs. Allergies” at https://www.pomona.edu/administration/dining/health-wellness/allergies/sensitivities-vs-allergies
  2. “Food allergy, intolerance, or sensitivity: What’s the difference, and why does it matter?” at https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/food-allergy-intolerance-or-sensitivity-whats-the-difference-and-why-does-it-matter-2020013018736
  3. “The 8 Most Common Food Intolerances” at https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/common-food-intolerances

* These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, mitigate, or prevent any disease.

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