In a study published by the U.S. National Library of Medicine, roughly 20 percent of adults report having some sort of food allergy or sensitivity, with reports of sensitivities being on the rise. Evidence of this increase can be seen at the grocery store and when dining out—with more and more menus and aisles marked for gluten-free and dairy-free options to accommodate customers.
What is the main difference between an allergy and a sensitivity?
One can be life-threatening. A true allergy causes an intense immune system reaction. This reaction is felt shortly after ingesting the food. If an allergy is severe, it can even lead to anaphylactic shock. A food sensitivity is a little less intense but still triggers a reaction in the immune system. Even though sensitivities don’t trigger an anaphylactic shock and may not elicit a histamine response, food sensitivities may not be felt until a few hours, a day or possibly longer after exposure of the food.
While a food sensitivity is not life-threatening like a true allergy, it is still necessary to rule out and eliminate any that exist.
The most common allergens include gluten, dairy, corn, soy and eggs. Gluten, corn and soy are among the crops that are sprayed heavily with pesticides, causing issues with digestion. Dairy and eggs can cause issues due to the processing of the foods, the diet the animal was on and the proteins inside the food that the body may not be able to break down. For example, lactose can be hard for people to break down if they do not produce an enzyme called lactase.
Consuming foods the body is sensitive to leads to inflammation in the intestinal wall and decreased absorption capabilities of the microvilli. When this occurs, the intestinal walls become compromised, and the microvilli cannot absorb nutrients. If not addressed, the inflammation can lead to undigested particles slipping through.
There won’t be actual food particles circulating in your body, but rather structures of molecules that are not broken down. These molecules cause inflammation throughout the body.
The most recognizable symptom of a food sensitivity includes an upset stomach, diarrhea and/or constipation. Other symptoms that are related to food sensitivities include brain fog, eczema, acne, bloat, sinus congestion, headaches, painful periods, excessive cravings of the same foods that you are sensitive to, blood sugar imbalance and fatigue.
While there are plenty of food sensitivity kits on the market, there are some ways that you can test sensitivities at home.
Food log: Begin keeping track of what you are eating and how you feel. This gives tremendous insight to what is going on internally. Track your food, energy levels and mood throughout the day. If any of the symptoms listed above appear, you know you are on to something!
From here, you can break down that meal to examine the ingredients that are potentially leading to sensitivity. Try different variations, or eliminate pieces to see what makes you feel better. It’s best to use a nutrition professional to help assist you with this process.
Pulse test: In Functional Nutritional Therapy, we use a plethora of tests to look for sensitivities. One that can be done at home is the pulse test. Take a baseline reading of your pulse, sitting and standing. Consume the food you are looking to test, wait about 30 minutes and take your pulse again. Wait an additional 30 minutes, take your pulse and repeat this about three times. An elevation in pulse indicates that there could be a sensitivity. Do this reading and test for about three days to see if there is consistency with the readings.
Elimination diet: Once you have discovered those potential triggers, it is best to start an elimination diet. Elimination diets consist of removing the food that is causing flare-ups for about a month and then gradually including it back into your diet.
If the symptoms reappear, you know you’ve found the culprit and should eliminate that food for the time being while focusing on repairing gut health.
When reintroducing foods, make sure to keep track of your energy, mood and symptoms. Remember: food sensitivity symptoms don’t always look like stomach pains. Start slow and gradually build up your exposure.
Considerations to keep in mind during this process:
- Symptoms can take hours until they are felt—this is why keeping track of symptoms is so important.
- While having a small portion of the food you are sensitive to may feel fine, internally there can be inflammation.
- If the body seems to be allergic to many foods, seek out the help of a nutrition professional to help address gut health.
Along with these tests, it is imperative to heal the gut. When the gut is exposed to the sensitivities, it becomes inflamed, meaning you have to put out the fire. The best way to do this is by eliminating those sensitivities and focus on consuming gut-healing foods. Gut-healing foods include bone broth, fermented foods, cooked vegetables (they are easier to digest) and healthy fats.
Lastly, know that it may take time to heal the symptoms one experiences with food sensitivities, but don’t let it discourage you. Thankfully, there are plenty of alternatives to purchase, making the transition of eliminating foods easier!
Shannon Dolan is a nutritional therapy practitioner, personal trainer and owner of Health With Shannon.