Food allergies and food sensitivities that could change the way you eat. 

There’s often confusion around the topic of food allergies and food sensitivities. Many people expect a reaction to be clear and apparent, with common and well-known symptoms such as swelling, hives, and difficulty breathing. However, these symptoms don’t always occur. In fact, not all allergies and sensitivities are easy to diagnose and uncover.

Many symptoms caused by food sensitivities are common symptoms of other health concerns and often overlooked as a reaction to food. Many Americans are living with unnecessary symptoms associated with poor nutrition and food sensitivities that go undiagnosed, and because of this, it’s important to understand the differences between allergies and sensitivities, including the causes and symptoms of each.

A true food allergy can trigger a potentially serious reaction. It can cause a person to exhibit symptoms ranging from mild itchiness to a severe, immediate reaction of hives, swelling, shortness of breath, and anaphylaxis, a life-threatening immune reaction. Peanut allergies are a classic example of a potentially life-threatening food allergy.

A food sensitivity is also an immune reaction, but it is often subtle, frequently delayed, and not life-threatening. Food sensitivies are also much more common than food allergies. The immune system can get kicked into chronic and low-grade activity due to exposure to certain foods. Wheat, dairy, corn, eggs, and soy are among the most common triggers, but many other foods can be involved. This leads to a smoldering immune response that may manifest as abdominal upset, fatigue, rashes, joint pain, autoimmune diseases, sinus congestion, and headaches, among so many others. Unfortunately, many health care providers do not understand the extent of food sensitivities, and too many people needlessly suffer these chronic conditions.

“Many people experience food sensitivities,” says Dr. Chris Link, an integrative medicine physician and medical nutrition specialist known for partnering with patients to help them reach their health goals by combining lifestyle, exercise, and nutrition with conventional medicine. “If you go out to a restaurant with four other couples, almost always there will be someone at your table that tells the waiter or waitress they are gluten-free, can’t have corn, or have some other food sensitivity.”

The term “food intolerance” is used by some to describe intolerance to a specific chemical contained in the food, such as lactose. Lactose intolerance is a condition that many adults have because they lack the enzyme needed to process the lactose contained in dairy products, resulting in gastrointestinal symptoms such as gas, diarrhea, stomach pains, etc. This can cause them to be intolerant to chemicals found in highly processed foods that contain artificial ingredients, colorings, flavorings, and preservatives. Once these unnatural chemicals are removed, people can see a decrease in unwanted symptoms.

There are many misconceptions associated with food reactions; there is no one-size-fits-all treatment, which can make it difficult for some providers to get to the root of the cause and even more difficult for those experiencing the symptoms to recognize what’s happening.

For instance, there is a common misconception that all reactions related to food can be discovered by the skin prick test. However, this isn’t always true. Michael McFerron struggled with food allergies for nearly seven years before his diagnosis. When Michael was tested with the skin test, no reactions appeared, and he was told he could eat whatever foods he wanted. It wasn’t until Michael was given a blood test that his sensitivities showed.

Another misconception is that all reactions related to foods result in the same symptoms. There are typical and more well known symptoms that occur with food allergies (e.g., swelling, hives, and difficulty breathing). People suffering from food sensitivities also experience a wide range of GI problems (abdominal pain, bloating, constipation, and diarrhea) and chronic symptoms not associated with the GI tract (fatigue, rashes, joint pain, autoimmune diseases, sinus congestion, and headaches).

“Whereas with a food allergy, such as a peanut, you experience hives and a near-immediate shortness of breath, leading you on your way to the hospital, a food sensitivity can cause chronic inflammation starting at the gut,” Dr. Link explains. “When your gut is chronically inflamed because of poor quality foods, or foods that you’re sensitive to, it causes a change in the permeability of the protective membrane, resulting in a leaky gut. When that permeability changes, it exposes many of the immune cells that live along the gut lining to things like bacteria and large food proteins that activate the immune system. This can lead to autoimmune diseases, chronic inflammation, rashes, joint pain, headaches, and fatigue.”

In Michael’s case, he began reacting to foods when he was 30 years old. After experiencing uncontrollable vomiting, many trips in and out of the hospital, and years of pain, he was diagnosed with several food allergies, including coffee, yeast, wheat, dairy, and chocolate.

Now that Michael is diagnosed and knows his symptoms, he can tell immediately when he has eaten something that will cause a reaction. 

“Vomiting is Mike’s main symptom, and it is instant too,” says Abbie McFerron, Michael’s wife. “Now he knows if he eats something wrong, he starts to feel it in his stomach. That’s the only reaction he has, and it lasts for 24 hours, not any shorter.”

Many people may also think that those who have food reactions are born with them. Whereas most food allergies develop at a young age, food sensitivities can actually develop over time for a variety of reasons. 

Christy Johnson discovered her sensitivities through much investigation and self-advocacy. In 2008, Christy had two back-to-back ankle surgeries resulting in various prescriptions and antiinflammatory medications for her recovery. About a year and a half after her second surgery, although her ankle mobility was much better, she started experiencing migraines, hair loss, and loss of complexion. The symptoms led Christy to seek a GI doctor, where she was diagnosed with acid reflux, resulting in a pump inhibitor. After about two weeks of feeling better, her symptoms came back. Those symptoms, combined with the stress of having three small children, led to additional symptoms.

After extensive research, testing, food journaling, and years of pain, it was determined that Christy’s food sensitivities developed due to a leaky gut. The medications used during her surgery recovery resulted in extensive damage to her GI tract and the good bacteria within her body, resulting in food sensitivities to a variety of foods — again showing that food sensitivities can wreak all kinds of havoc on your body.

If you’re experiencing chronic symptoms of pain and discomfort as described, take these steps to evaluate your health and improve your diet:

Skip the processed foods

“The first thing someone needs to do if they’re having a reaction and think food is related to it is remove processed foods and sugar from their diet,” Christy says. “Start with [avoiding] the foods that come out of a bag, box, or through your driver’s side window.”

Dr. Link advises patients to take themselves off the standard American diet, or SAD diet, instead consume whole foods and real foods for a nutrient-packed diet, including fish, eggs, vegetables, nuts, olive oil, and whole grains. As people do this, many notice their symptoms  start to go away.

Keep track of your diet with a food journal

As Christy continued to struggle with symptoms, she would wake up feeling great but would begin to experience stomach cramps, pains, and other signs of distention about 30 to 45 minutes after eating in the morning. After talking with her doctor, who specializes in seasonal allergies, she started a food journal. Throughout the process of journaling, Christy was able to start connecting the dots. Through her efforts and testing, it was determined Christy had food sensitivities to beef and corn.

Restaurant dining and carryout can be very difficult for those suffering from food allergies in Mid-Missouri. Michael is constantly discovering new foods that he cannot eat, including foods made with soy sauce, which is not gluten-free. He tends to stick with restaurants that offer gluten-free options, such as Oscar’s Diner, Jersey Mike’s, and Pancheros Mexican Grill.

Try a 30-day elimination diet

After journaling or monitoring the occurrence of symptoms after eating food, look for commonalities in the timing of your symptoms. If you notice a pattern, it may be time to try a 30-day elimination diet. Five foods that are often eliminated are wheat, dairy, corn, eggs, and soy.

“Quite often, when you remove these foods from your diet, you’ll start to feel better,” Dr. Link says. “After a period of eight weeks or so, you can start to add the foods you eliminated one at a time. One of those foods will stand out when reintroduced, and it may be clear which food is causing the problem.”

“Quite often, when you remove these foods from your diet, you’ll start to feel better.” 

“After years of struggling with pain and discomfort, I made my way through a 30-day elimination recommended by my doctor, Dr. Wes Stricker of Allergy and Asthma Consultants, and I felt remarkable,” Christy says, “I had no bloating, no distention, my color came back and my hair stopped falling out. Once the symptoms disappeared, Dr. Striker asked me to eat as much beef and corn as I could to see if the symptoms came back. Although he asked that I stick with it for seven days, I only made it three.”

Take care of yourself and control your stress

Christy is an advocate for monitoring stress levels. She’s been able to monitor her food reactions by taking a probiotic, staying on top of her diet, exercising regularly, taking allergy medicine, and getting routine colonoscopies. In addition, when she started practicing yoga about six years ago, she noticed it dramatically improved her GI symptoms.

“Yoga resets and engages your parasympathetic nervous system, helping to balance stress, which can wreak havoc on people with compromised GI tracts,” she says.

Reactions to food can feel very isolating and have both short-term and immediate effects. But they can also have chronic effects that can cause long-term damage to your digestive system, making it that much more important to talk with a doctor as soon as your symptoms begin. When dealing with discomfort, it’s important to always advocate for yourself. If something seems off, keep asking questions and seeking answers.

“Food sensitivities are way more common than you think,” Christy says.