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Suffer From Food Sensitivities? Read This.
A few years ago, I started getting strange stomach pains, bloating, and other digestive issues. I had never really paid attention to my digestive health before, but it started to worsen with time. I went to the doctor who offered me nothing but an acid reflux medication. I skipped it, and thankfully, I now know that it probably would have made things worse. I suggested a celiac test, which was negative, but I went ahead and eliminated gluten anyways. This was the best decision for my gut health and overall health. I no longer get sick every winter, have awesome digestion, and feel healthy and vibrant. It wasn’t the only thing I did, but I know that food sensitivities hugely impacted my health.
I’m sure there’s plenty of you reading that think food is contributing to your digestive problems, skin flare-ups, joint pain, or fibromyalgia? Maybe you find yourself bloated all day long, or in the bathroom too many times to count. Yes, your doctor may have told you that food doesn’t have an impact on your fibromyalgia or migraines, but why wouldn’t it?
Food matters more than you think. If you have changed your diet in the past and started eating a real food diet, you probably noticed positive shifts in your health or symptoms clear. It’s amazing how a few changes towards can make a huge difference.
What are Food Sensitivities?
Food sensitivities are a reaction to food or chemicals in your body. When you eat a food that your immune system reacts to, chemical mediators can be released. These can include histamine, prostaglandins, and cytokines. It’s these chemical signals that can lead to symptoms like migraines, pain, diarrhea and contribute to conditions like fibromyalgia or IBS.
The symptoms may show up within a few hours, but it also may take up a few days to notice symptoms. You may be sensitive to a food or chemical only after eating a large amount, or you may react to a very small amount.
Food sensitivities aren’t simply a nuisance; they can actually contribute to inflammation. One indicator of inflammation is CRP (C-reactive protein), and research has shown an increase in CRP with common health conditions like IBS and migraines. It’s not “normal” to have daily digestive distress or migraines.
What’s the Difference between Sensitivities & Allergies?
Food allergies are one response to food and it is an IgE antibody response. This reaction is much quicker and can produce symptoms within seconds or minutes of consuming or coming in contact with an allergen. A food allergy can be life-threatening and can lead to anaphylaxis in some cases. The most common allergens are the Big 8: cow’s milk, soy, peanut, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, wheat, and corn.
A food intolerance, like FODMAP intolerance or lactose intolerance, comes from the lack of enzymes or inability to properly digest foods. In lactose intolerance, the person doesn’t have enough of the enzyme lactase to digest lactose, and symptoms like bloating or diarrhea may occur. FODMAP intolerance is a reaction to the carbohydrates in some foods, causing fermentation and symptoms like diarrhea or bloating.
Why is it So Hard to Identify Food Sensitivities?
Self-experimentation is the cheapest and one of the best ways to identify food sensitivities. If you suspect foods are causing you problems, you can try the gold standard method – an elimination diet. There are many versions of this, such as eliminating common allergens, or a Paleo or Paleo Autoimmune Diet. After a few weeks or months, you start to introduce and trial different foods one at a time. If you notice any symptoms in the day or so after eating it, you could be sensitive. You could play around with the dose of the food and how much causes a symptom, or eliminate it for a few months before re-introducing it.
Many people have heard of gluten sensitivity, but you could be sensitive to ANY number of foods, spices, herbs, or chemicals, even healthy ones. Many people get headaches after eating a chemical called MSG, have joint pains after eating nightshade veggies such as white potatoes or eggplant, or have digestive problems from wheat or corn. They may show up hours or days after exposure, and if you’re eating hundreds of different ingredients, it can be hard to pinpoint the problem.
Head into your pantry, and pick up a few boxes or packages you have there. Take a look on the package at the ingredient list. How many separate ingredients are there? If it’s dates or almonds, it’s probably only one ingredient. If you grabbed a box of cereal or crackers, there could be a whole list of ingredients with food and chemicals. They may contain wheat, corn syrup, and different additives or preservatives. Even supplements, toothpaste, and beauty products contain various additives and chemicals that may cause reactions. Common allergens like corn and wheat or gluten can be hiding in food through different names or ingredients like “natural flavors.”
What are Common Tests for Food Sensitivities?
There are many tests out there for food sensitivities. You can start with self-experimentation, but if you’re frustrated, a blood test may be the best option.
Unfortunately, not many of the available tests are very accurate. Some test IgG levels (ELISA IgG), but a high IgG does not mean the food is causing symptoms. Another common one is ALCAT, which was designed in the 1980s. The most accurate test currently is MRT (Mediator Response Testing), which is an upgraded and more reliable version of ALCAT.
The reliability of most of these tests is poor, and one study found ELISA IgG had identical test results only 34% of the time (pretty low when you’re trying to figure out reactive foods). This means you could send in the same blood sample under two different names and receive different results. On the other hand, MRT is the most reliable and has over 90% split sample reproducibility. No test is perfect, but MRT seems to be the best one available at this time.
Another factor is the interpretation of the results. Many practitioners who run the tests just provide a print-out for patients and tell them to avoid their reactive foods without looking at the foods not tested. With MRT, you will work with a certified LEAP practitioner (CLT) to design your personalized nutrition plan based on the test results and your preferences. At first, you will eat a limited diet based on simple, whole foods cooked in your kitchen. Then, you will slowly introduce foods one at a time. Over time, you may eventually be able to eat your reactive foods. You will also look at the whole picture like spices you use, or chemicals in your medications, supplements, or beauty care products that could be causing symptoms.
There are small studies supporting the use of MRT, and many people significantly reduce their symptoms and even come off medications after a few weeks. With my history of IBS, I know food sensitivities played a role. Regardless if you use an elimination diet or food sensitivity testing, a diet change is much safer than using multiple medications that may not even work. Even better, by identifying foods or chemicals that are causing your symptoms, you have the chance to feel better than you have in years!
Lauren is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) who promotes a real-food, individualized approach to nutrition and health. She wants everyone to discover the power of healing food, healthy digestion, and a balanced mindset to build vibrant health. She blogs at Mindful Meals about real food nutrition, mindful eating, healthy digestion, with plenty of yoga and puppy pictures. You can also connect with her on Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, or Twitter.