Food sensitivities and food allergies are two different things. A food allergy is a strong, sometimes life-threatening condition that occurs when people eat foods that they are allergic to. Common foods associated with allergic reactions include peanuts, milk, eggs, tree nuts, wheat, fish, and shellfish. Eating these types of foods can trigger a rapid onset of severe allergic symptoms including vomiting, hives, swelling of the throat, difficulty breathing, and anaphylaxis shock. People who are allergic to foods usually carry an Epipen with them in case of accidental ingestion to avert these serious reactions.
Food sensitivities or intolerances are different in that they don’t involve any extreme reaction from the immune system, and adverse symptoms usually come on more gradually. Reaction time can be within a few hours or up to several days after the food has been ingested. Food sensitivities can wreak havoc on the digestive system and can affect how we feel and one’s quality of life. They can also create chronic conditions in the body along with widespread inflammation.
Common symptoms associated with food sensitivities include:
- Joint pain
- Fuzzy thinking
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Weight gain, or inability to lose weight
- GI issues such as bloating, gas, stomach pain, IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) and IBD (Inflammatory Bowel Disease), diarrhea, and constipation
- Runny nose and/or cough
- GERD (acid reflux)
Most symptoms of food sensitivities affect digestion, the skin and/or the respiratory tract.
Studies have indicated that 15-20% of the industrialized world population suffers from food sensitivities and 2-5% suffer from food allergies.
Causes of Food Sensitivities
There are many different causes for food intolerances and/or sensitivities. We’ll cover some of the more common ones here.
Gluten intolerance and celiac disease (gluten allergy) is on the increase, world-wide. It is found in numerous grains with the most abundant one being wheat. Wheat, wheat germ, and other wheat products are used in so many foods that it can be difficult to eliminate from the diet. It’s also found in other grains such as rye, barley, bulger, couscous and many more. Grain products containing glyphosate are fed to the beef and poultry that we consume.
For a full list of foods containing gluten, click here.
Common symptoms of a gluten intolerance include:
- Abdominal pain
- Bowel changes
- GERD (acid reflex)
- Brain fog
- Joint pain
Some scientists have posed the question: Is it an actual gluten intolerance that’s on the rise or is it a glyphosate intolerance. Glyphosate (the active ingredient in Round Up) is also used to hasten ripening of many crops, with the largest one being wheat. Some scientists are studying the correlation between gluten and glyphosate. There is a very interesting meta-analysis well worth the read that was published by the National Institute of Health (NIH) regarding the links between glyphosate, gluten intolerance, and celiac disease.
Glyphosate causes an overgrowth of pathogens in the gut microbiome. It also causes a breakdown of the “tight junctions” in the gut wall which leads to leaky gut syndrome.
Glyphosate has also been linked to many health issues including celiac disease, nausea, diarrhea, skin rashes, anemia, and depression. Glyphosate interferes with the body’s ability to absorb nutrients as well. It also causes problems with the reproductive system, thyroid, and has even been linked to kidney failure and cancer.
To be on the safe side, be aware of what foods contain gluten (listed above) and avoid those if at all possible. Look for non-GMO (genetically modified) foods, and strive to eat as much organic food as you can afford. Practicing these things will keep your exposure to gluten and glyphosate at a minimum.
Dairy (Lactose Intolerance)
Approximately 65% of the population is lactose intolerant after infancy. This means that some people lack the enzyme responsible for breaking down diary products. Consuming milk products can produce bloating, abdominal spasms, stomachache, excess gas, and diarrhea. Fortunately, there are many products in the dairy department to choose from that are lactose free.
This occurs in both children and adults when they lack the enzyme to break down simple sugars. Because the fructose isn’t broken down, it isn’t easily absorbed into the blood stream. Instead, it travels to the large intestine, where it ferments in the gut causing digestive distress. Common symptoms include GERD (acid reflux), gas, abdominal cramping, vomiting, and bloating.
Simple sugars are found in fruits, some vegetables, honey, agave, and high fructose corn syrup, which is a common ingredient in juices and sodas, and cane sugar of course.
Salicylates are a derivative of salicylic acid. These are found in plant-based foods; the plants produce salicylic acid naturally to act as a first line of defense against harmful bacteria, fungi, diseases, and insects. Salicylates are also antioxidants and found in fruits, vegetables, teas, coffee, spices, nuts, and honey. Tomatoes, berries, and citrus fruits all have high levels of salicylates.
Symptoms of a sensitivity include frequent sinus infections, stuffy nose, asthma, diarrhea, inflammation of the gut, colitis, and hives.
Sulfites are preservatives used in wines, beer, dried fruits, condiments, some teas, baked goods, and canned vegetables. This is why some people who drink wine or beer get headaches and a general feeling of malaise after consuming. Other common symptoms are hives, stuffy nose, wheezing, coughing, and asthma.
Amines to include Histamine
Amines are produced bacteria that form during food storage or fermentation. There are many types of amines with the most common being histamine. These are found in foods such as wines, aged cheese, cured meats, citrus fruit, avocados, beer, vinegars, and fermented foods.
The immune system is involved in this particular food intolerance and creates an immediate inflammatory response to include sneezing, headaches, hives, itching, stomach cramps, anxiety, and even low blood pressure. Histamine responses affect the immune system, digestive tract, and the central nervous system.
Some people have chemical intolerances to cheeses and chocolates and wine. Food additives, colorings, emulsifiers, flavor enhancers, preservatives, and sweeteners can all produce a reaction including digestive tract discomfort along with itching and rashes. Nitrates found in processed meats can also produce similar symptoms.
MSG (monosodium glutamate) is a flavor enhancer mainly used by restaurants. It is not well tolerated by most people and usually causes headaches and can adversely affect sleep.
Food dyes such as carmine (red) and annatto (yellow) in particular cause reactions in some people which include headaches and rashes.
There are those who are hypersensitive to caffeine. They are only able to tolerate small amounts, and some people have to cut it out completely due to rapid heartbeat, restlessness and nervousness, insomnia, etc.
How To Determine if you Have a Food Sensitivity/Intolerance?
Food Sensitivity Testing
There are a few ways to go about doing this. One way is to have a food sensitivity test completed. The Alcat is one of the best tests on the market. You can have your physician or provider order this blood test for you, or you can take it on your own by going to a lab and having your blood drawn, and then following instructions to send your lab draw to the company for the testing.
They will then provide you with a detailed, color coded, analysis of what foods you are sensitive or intolerant to. Here is a video provided by Cell Sciences, the maker of the Alcat.
There are other food sensitivity tests on the market. Many of them offer “do it yourself” type testing, similar to the Alcat. You can find a list by googling “food sensitivity testing” and see what comes up to your liking.
I’ve used Alcat and have been pleased with the results. It’s detailed and very easy to interpret, and provides a guide of what foods to eat and what not to eat.
The Elimination or Exclusion Diet
This is a more time consuming and old-fashioned way of determining what foods you may have sensitivities to. First, it involves keeping a food diary by logging what you have eaten, and how you felt afterwards. By doing this for a few weeks, it will give you an idea of what foods might be causing gastrointestinal distress or making you feel bad.
To determine which foods it might be, you would want to eliminate what you suspect to be the cause. For example, if you think you might have an intolerance to dairy products, you would then eliminate them from your diet for a period of about 3 weeks to a few months, and note in your diary if you are feeling any better by eliminating from your diet. If you are feeling better, you can then reintroduce that item back into your diet and see if you start feeling bad again.
This plan does work to a certain degree, but it will take considerable time, discipline, and effort on your part.
Restore Your Gut Health
There are some simple measures that you can take that will improve the health of your microbiome, and your overall health. If you have food intolerances or sensitivities, you will want to get those addressed, but here are some other things you can do to improve your gut health.
- Add probiotics to your daily diet. These are the beneficial bacteria that your gut needs to thrive. You can find probiotics in fermented foods, kefir, and kombucha, but you can also find a good quality probiotic supplement. The highest quality probiotics will have live bacteria in them and you would find those in the refrigerated section of the health foods department.
- Add prebiotics to your diet. Prebiotics are what feed the probiotics! Most fibrous vegetables have prebiotics in them, but again, you can also purchase as a supplement.
- Take digestive enzymes, especially if you have food sensitivities. These enzymes will help to break down your food completely so that nutrients can be absorbed properly and to keep the lining of your gut wall in better health.
- Avoid antibiotics unless ABSOLUTELY necessary. Antibiotics kill all bacteria, including the beneficial bacteria in your gut. This can greatly weaken your immune system and will take extra efforts to get your gut health restored.
- Avoid starchy, processed, or sugary foods and drinks. These kinds of things feed the harmful or “bad” bacteria in your gut.
With up to 70% of our immune system residing in the gut, it is vitally important that we consider it as a pillar of our health and do our best to keep it thriving and keep us in the best health possible. Read more about How to Improve Gut Health in a previous article that I wrote.