Are You Suffering From Food Allergies or Sensitivities?

If you’re over the age of 20, chances are you’ve noticed it seems like almost everyone you encounter these days has some form of food sensitivity. Your local restaurant likely has menu items specifically marked gluten or dairy free, and your grocery store has significantly more allergen and food-sensitivity options available, if not an entire section dedicated to these products.

It’s certainly not all in your head. Food allergies and sensitivities are becoming increasingly more common.

Food Allergy and Sensitivities Are on the Rise

Food allergies and sensitivities are becoming somewhat of an epidemic in the United States. The most concerning aspect of this is the sudden increase in the past three decades of people who have a diagnosed food allergy or sensitivity.

Current data shows that 1 in 10 American adults and 1 in 13 American children have a diagnosed food allergy. However, that number is likely significantly higher as many individuals live with a host of uncomfortable symptoms that could be from an undiagnosed food allergy or sensitivity.

Current statistics show that food sensitivities and food allergies are found in more than 20 percent percent of the population of industrialized countries. This is a high number, and it’s likely to be even higher due to a large number of cases gone unreported or undiagnosed.

While food allergies and food sensitivities are very common, they are certainly not normal.

Are Food Allergies and Sensitivities the Same?

While the terms food “allergy” and “sensitivity” often get used interchangeably, there is a significant difference between the two.

Food Allergy: True food allergies are mediated by IgE. This elicits an immediate reaction, which is often quite severe. Many individuals experience trouble breathing, swelling, hives, or itching immediately after exposure to a food allergen.

Food Sensitivity: Food sensitivities usually include an IgA-, IgG-, or IgM-mediated immune response to a food. These can be much more difficult to diagnose because symptoms can manifest themselves in a wide variety of ways. We’ll discuss this more shortly, but symptoms can range from gastrointestinal issues to nasal congestion, skin irritation, or even having an effect on your mood. The response to food sensitivities is often delayed and can take up to 72 hours to manifest.

Food Intolerance: Food intolerances arise when the body lacks specific enzymes to properly handle certain foods. Our body requires certain enzymes to digest different types of food, and when we lack that, an intolerance can manifest itself. You likely know someone with a lactose intolerance, which is a very common food intolerance. In the case of a lactose intolerance, the individual’s body lacks the enzyme lactase which allows them to digest lactose (the sugar in dairy products).

Common Food Sensitivity Symptoms

When certain foods are continually consumed over a long, or even short, period of time, the immune system becomes dysregulated and symptoms occur. Many think of food sensitivities mostly affecting the gut and manifesting gastrointestinal symptoms, but in reality, they can also affect the skin, the brain, and have systemic implications.

Perhaps you did not know that some of these symptoms are linked to food sensitivities? They include:

  • Acne
  • Brain fog
  • Congestion or runny nose
  • Constipation
  • Depression
  • Diarrhea or loose stools
  • Eczema
  • Fatigue
  • Flare of autism or autoimmune symptoms
  • Gas or bloating
  • Headaches or migraines
  • Heartburn
  • Immune system impairment
  • Insomnia
  • Inflammatory bowel disease
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Joint pain or inflammation
  • Malabsorption of vitamins and minerals
  • Rashes, eczema, or swelling
  • Sinus infections
  • Weight gain

Why Are Food Allergies, Sensitivities Increasing in Prevalence?

The increase in food allergies and sensitivities isn’t linked to one specific cause, but rather a combination of many things our bodies are fighting against.

Medications and& Antibiotics: Common medications such as Tylenol and ibuprofen as well as antibiotics deplete glutathione, which is vital to a well-functioning immune system and gut microbiome.

Glutathione is an antioxidant that fights cell-damaging molecules in our body. It helps us to break down nutrients we consume, repairs DNA, activates important enzymes, and inactivates toxins. If the glutathione in your body has been depleted by too much-repeated use of these types of medications or too many rounds of antibiotics over the course of your life, it’s likely that your body will have a negative response to food in some form.

Furthermore, these medications cause intestinal permeability, which contributes to the development of immune responses to foods.

Environmental Toxins: It’s no surprise to know that environmental toxins that we encounter every day can be part of the “toxic load” our bodies are trying to keep up with.

It’s estimated that the average individual encounters at least 700,000 different toxins (though many believe that number to likely be as high as 2 million) every single day. These toxins are in cleaning products, bottled water, skincare and makeup, perfumes, soaps and detergents, air fresheners, furniture, plastic products, paint, the list could go on.

Infections: If your body is fighting an infection, whether it be bacterial, fungal, parasitic, or viral, it may cause symptoms of a food allergy or sensitivity. It’s not unusual for a food allergy or sensitivity to be diagnosed with the root cause of the issue going unidentified. It’s important to work to figure out if the root cause of your allergy or sensitivity could be due to some type of infection.

Oversanitization: This has become increasingly prevalent in our everyday lives as many places we visit and surfaces we encounter have been overly sanitized. When everything we touch is oversanitized, it removes both good and bad bacteria.

Our bodies are designed to encounter germs. This is essential for our immune systems to build up a natural defense against harmful bacteria, and to allow good bacteria to populate our gut. When this is removed, whether by the oversanitization of surfaces, or excessive use of hand sanitizer, etc, our immune system becomes hyper-reactive to germs and is unable to neutralize the fight.

Additionally, our digestive tract is unable to properly absorb and process nutrients, often manifesting in food allergies or sensitivities.

Processed Foods: Many individuals consume processed foods multiple times a day without a thought, but they may not realize the havoc these foods can wreak on the gut.

Processed foods are essentially any food product that has been changed from its natural state by refining and adding additional ingredients such as preservatives, fillers, gums, additives, etc. These ingredients cause inflammation in the gut, often leading to sensitivities for many individuals.

Stress: Stress is a cause of so many negative symptoms in our bodies, and food allergies and sensitivities can certainly be to blame. We’ve been talking a lot about swelling, irritation, and inflammation, and stress is a culprit in this as well.

When we are stressed, it causes a histamine response all over our body. If you’re experiencing symptoms of an allergy or sensitivity, paying attention to when these symptoms manifest and what sort of mental or physical stress load you are carrying is important.

Why Test Food Sensitivities?

Many individuals live for quite a while with their negative symptoms, trying a variety of things to try and figure out what is causing their issues. Some remove dairy or gluten from their diet, and they start to see improvement but then feel like the symptoms are returning.

Testing for a food sensitivity will produce a more successful outcome. You’ll be able to identify whether it’s one or multiple different foods that are causing your symptoms, and you can then begin to work to figure out the root cause.

The Benefits of Stool Testing

The vibrancy of the microbiome is foundational to how the body handles food. There are over 1000 different bacterial strains in the gut that are responsible for various tasks including immune function, managing inflammation, assimilation of nutrients, and ensuring proper barrier function. Furthermore, the microbiome can influence metabolic health, cardiovascular health, liver health, hormone health, among others.

Identifying food sensitivities helps us remove inflammation and immediate symptoms quickly, but the stool test tells us why these symptoms are occurring.

Consider tests that look for:

  • Intestinal permeability (leaky gut)
  • Calprotectin
  • Pancreatic elastase 1
  • Bile acids
  • Cholic acid
  • Chenodeoxycholic acid
  • Deoxycholic acid
  • Lithocholic acid
  • Acetic acid
  • Butyric acid
  • Propionic acid
  • Valeric acid
  • Total SCFAs
  • SS-glucuronidase
  • Bacterial species involved with SIBO, IBS, IBD
  • Fungal species
  • Parasites and worms
  • Viruses

Common Food Sensitivities

While there are a wide variety of foods that people may have sensitivities to, the most common are:

  • Gluten
  • Conventional dairy
  • Eggs
  • Corn
  • Soy
  • Nuts
  • Nightshades

If you have a weak microbiome, these foods can cause inflammation in your body which triggers a wide variety of symptoms as we’ve discussed.

Gluten Cross-Reactivity

If you’ve removed gluten from your diet but are still experiencing symptoms, you may be dealing with gluten cross-reactivity. This happens when your body notices a food you are consuming has a similar protein sequence to gluten. Essentially, your body says “Hey! I recognize this, and we know it’s bad,” producing the same immune response as it does with gluten.

This is most commonly seen with naturally gluten-free grains such as:

However, you may be experiencing these symptoms while being entirely grain free. Conventional dairy products and yeast can also produce the same inflammatory reaction symptoms. Current data shows that 50 percent of people with a gluten sensitivity are also sensitive to conventional dairy.

The Elimination Diet

The elimination diet removes foods that are known to drive inflammation and symptoms as well as a careful reintroduction period to rule out food reactions. This plan is designed to remove potentially problematic foods in order to decrease inflammation in the body, rebalance the gut flora, soothe the gut lining, regulate blood sugar, modulate the immune system, resolve nutrient deficiencies, and bring overall healing to the body. My book, “Restorative Kitchen,” is an extensive cookbook and guide for an elimination diet.

There are limitations to the elimination diet, especially if symptoms are related to an infection or deeper problems in the gut that have not been properly dealt with. If you start an elimination diet, it’s important not to see it as a “quick fix,” as it can take time to truly heal your gut. You may start seeing improvement in your symptoms right away, but for others, it takes more time. It’s important to remember that a diet like this, though it has its challenges and limitations, will ultimately bring so much relief and healing to your body if you are patient as you heal from the inside out.

Rotational Eating

Another strategy to identify food allergies and sensitivities is with rotational eating. Rotational eating is essentially consuming foods from a specific food group that has biological similarities, and then taking a break from eating them for several days (at least 3)  before consuming again. This gives time for you to record any symptoms or reactions your body might be having to the food group, while also helping your body to have time to process food groups that might be inflammatory. It’s essentially a “time out” for your immune system to allow it to regulate itself properly, instead of being constantly inundated with inflammation-triggering foods.

When you’re doing a rotational eating plan, making an extra concerted effort to eat seasonally will help with this. We aren’t designed to eat the same 20-30 fruits, vegetables, and meats year-round. Shopping at your local farmers market, produce stand, and developing relationships with any local farmers in your area will make eating seasonally much easier. Even when you’re not doing rotational eating, your body will thank you for making the effort to consume food with the seasons.

Dealing with symptoms that seem to constantly come and go and change often can be incredibly frustrating and discouraging. You might feel like you eat “healthy,” but still have sensitivities. Following some of the strategies we discussed today can make a big difference in helping you eliminate food triggers and begin your journey to healing. However, as we mentioned earlier—it’s important to also work with a trusted practitioner who can help you identify the root of the problem.

While walking the road to identify and treat your food allergy or sensitivity symptoms can seem like a long one, when you allow your body to heal, you will be so grateful you did! Health is wealth, friends.

Additional Reading:

Dr. Ashley Turner is a traditionally trained naturopath and board-certified doctor of holistic health for Restorative Wellness Center. As an expert in functional medicine, Dr. Ashley is the author of the gut-healing guide “Restorative Kitchen” and “Restorative Traditions,” a cookbook comprised of non-inflammatory holiday recipes.

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