Unraveling the Mystery of Food Sensitivities: Understanding Symptoms, Causes, and Solutions

food sensitivities

Does it seem that more and more people are avoiding certain foods? Maybe you’ve noticed restaurant menus and food labels listing allergens like gluten, dairy, or soy. Perhaps you wonder if the symptoms you experience are connected to something you eat every day.

Food sensitivities have become a common topic in the world of health and wellness. Increasingly, people are questioning the idea that certain foods could be causing their health symptoms. Still, it can be challenging to determine if these symptoms are actually due to a food sensitivity or something else entirely.

This article will explore food sensitivities and how they impact your health. It will discuss the challenges and approaches to making a definitive diagnosis and offers solutions for when you suspect you have a food sensitivity.  

What is a food sensitivity, and how common are they?

A food sensitivity, or food intolerance, occurs when the body has difficulty digesting or absorbing specific components in food, such as the gluten in wheat or the lactose or casein in dairy. Unlike a food allergy which is an immediate immune response, a food sensitivity is a delayed reaction that can cause more general symptoms like bloating, gas, diarrhea, or headaches.

Consuming foods your body is sensitive or intolerant to can lead to chronic inflammation, a key contributor to many health problems. As mentioned, one of the most common effects of long-term exposure to trigger foods is GI distress. Depending on the individual, these symptoms can lead to nutrient deficiencies and weight loss or gain.

Additionally, long-term exposure to food intolerances may increase the risk of developing autoimmune diseases. Chronic inflammation can cause the immune system to attack healthy cells and tissues in the body, leading to conditions such as thyroid disease, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and multiple sclerosis.

Determining the exact incidence and prevalence of food sensitivities is challenging as no single standardized test is used to diagnose, and many never seek medical treatment. However, some estimates suggest that as many as 20-30% of Americans may have a food sensitivity or intolerance. (Gupta RS, 2019)

While there is limited research on trends, studies suggest that the prevalence of particular sensitivities, such as gluten intolerance, may have increased. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2017 (Leonard MM, 2017) found that the prevalence of celiac disease, a type of gluten intolerance, had doubled in the US over the past 25 years.

The reasons for the potential increase still need to be fully understood. They are likely multi-factorial, but most theories are rooted in gut microbiome changes linked to the environment and our modern lifestyle. Specifically:

  1. Dietary patterns over the past few decades have significantly shifted. Many people regularly consume processed foods high in sugar, unhealthy fats, and additives. These foods alter the gut microbiome and potentially contribute to the development of food intolerances.

  2. Exposure to environmental toxins, such as pesticides, heavy metals, and air pollution, may also play a role. Exposure to toxins can lead to changes in the gut microbiome resulting in intestinal permeability (or leaky gut), allowing undigested food to enter the bloodstream and trigger an immune response. Constant immune activation causes chronic inflammation, which can contribute to the development of food intolerances and other health problems.

  3. Overuse of antibiotics, both in human medicine and in agriculture, disrupts the balance of beneficial bacteria in the gut, which can contribute to developing food intolerances and other health issues.

  4. As awareness of food intolerances has increased, more people may be seeking a diagnosis for their symptoms. Additionally, advances in diagnostic testing make it easier to identify and diagnose a specific sensitivity.

The challenges of identifying the problem

Diagnosing a food sensitivity can be tricky. Let’s examine why it can be so difficult to determine if your symptoms result from a specific food or something else.


Delayed Reactions:

One of the primary reasons it can be challenging is because symptoms can be delayed. Unlike food allergies, which cause immediate and severe reactions, food sensitivities cause symptoms that don’t appear for hours or even days after eating the offending food. This delay makes it difficult to connect the food with a specific reaction.


Non-Specific Symptoms:

Another challenge with food sensitivities is that the symptoms can be non-specific. Symptoms like headaches, fatigue, and joint pain can be caused by a wide range of factors, making it difficult to determine if they are actually due to a particular food.


Overlapping Symptoms:

Many of the symptoms associated with food sensitivities overlap with those of other conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), making it difficult to distinguish between different conditions and identify the root cause of the symptoms.


Individual Differences:

What triggers a reaction in one person may not affect another at all. Or the type of reaction experienced by one person may be very different from another with the same food trigger. These differences create confusion when trying to diagnose.


Psychological Factors:

Finally, it’s essential to consider the role of psychological factors in food sensitivities. Some people may have a psychological aversion to certain foods, which can cause symptoms mistaken for a food sensitivity. Additionally, stress and anxiety can exacerbate symptoms of food sensitivities, making it even more challenging to identify the root cause of the symptoms.

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Approaches to Diagnosing

If you suspect your symptoms may be due to a particular food, it’s worth taking the time and trying to find out. The impact on your health can be profound.

Several methods can help you identify a food trigger. Here are some of the best ways to go about it, but remember there is currently no standardized diagnostic test.


Keep a food diary:

Tracking your food intake can help identify patterns and potential triggers. Note the time of day, quantity and type of food, and symptoms you experience. Using food-tracking apps can be helpful for this approach.


Do an Elimination diet:

An elimination diet involves removing potential trigger foods from your diet for several weeks and then slowly reintroducing them one at a time to see if the symptoms reappear. It can be helpful to work together during this process to ensure you maintain adequate nutrient intake and have both the structure and support to succeed.


Blood tests:

Blood tests can measure the levels of specific antibodies that may indicate an immune response to certain foods. Although these tests are not perfect, they can provide some information that can be used to experiment on your own. If a particular food is identified as problematic, remove it for a few weeks and then reintroduce it to see if the symptoms reappear.


Skin prick tests:

Skin prick tests involve pricking the skin and exposing it to a small amount of potential allergens. If the skin reacts with swelling or redness, it may indicate an allergy or sensitivity.


Breath tests:

Breath tests can help diagnose intolerances to specific carbohydrates, such as lactose or fructose. These tests measure the amount of gas the bacteria produces in the digestive tract when fermenting these carbohydrates.

What to do if you suspect you have a food sensitivity

If you suspect you have a food sensitivity or intolerance, it’s important to work with a healthcare professional to determine the best approach for diagnosis. They can help determine the most appropriate tests based on your symptoms and medical history. Once you’ve identified the problem, the best course forward is to avoid the trigger food and focus on healing your gut. Fortunately, our bodies are incredibly responsive and capable of healing when adequately supported.

At Taking Root, we work with clients to customize plans that achieve lasting improvement. Understanding your test results or working through an elimination diet can be challenging, and having guidance, support, and encouragement increases the likelihood of success. Additionally, we can support your efforts to heal the gut and can create a unique meal plan so you continue cultivating a lifestyle that promotes your sustained health and well-being.

Getting to the root of your symptoms and learning to nourish and heal your body will set you on a course to renewed health, vitality, and joy. Reach out today to begin your unique wellness journey!

About Kate

National Board Certified Health and Wellness Coach

Combining a B.S. in dietetics, board certification in health coaching from NBHWC, and 23 years of experience selling, training, and leading people in the pharmaceutical industry, I passionately support women as they become their healthiest, most vibrant selves.

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