Food sensitivities or food intolerance is very prevalent in our society but often goes unacknowledged or undetected. There’s very little awareness in mainstream society about the deep impact it can have on physical and mental health.
Sensitivity to food occurs when the naturally occurring chemical composition of the food eaten has a direct effect on the brain or body. They exist without IgE antibodies and, therefore, can be hard to detect. It is believed that about 80 percent of the population has undiagnosed food sensitivities, while true food allergy occurs in only about 5 percent of the population.
Although the terms are often used interchangeably, a true food allergy is not the same as a food sensitivity, which is also known as food intolerance. Food allergy creates an immediate and pronounced effect like breathing difficulties or anaphylactic shock and is IgE mediated, while reactions from food sensitivity or food intolerance are usually delayed or hidden and the symptoms are not as recognizable. They are IgG mediated. A good book to read on this subject is called Your Hidden Food Allergies are Making you Fat by Roger Deutsch and Rudy Rivera, M.D.
Food sensitivities or intolerance are often associated with poor digestion and, therefore, with the assimilation of partly undigested proteins can also directly disrupt neurotransmitter function. Another excellent book that provides extensive information on this topic is called Brain Allergies by William Philpott, MD if you’d like to learn more.
Sensitivities or allergies to food can be caused by a variety of factors such as a weak immune system, heredity, repeated exposure to the same foods over and over, nutritional deficiencies, Candida overgrowth and leaky gut syndrome. The individual living with food allergies or sensitivities often faces a lack of support from friends, family and the uneducated medical community, because they refuse to believe or acknowledge that food can cause such debilitating symptoms.
Symptoms of Food Sensitivities
The effects of food allergies or sensitivities on the brain can be exhibited in numerous ways. Here are some of the most common:
- mood swings
- depression (mild to severe) (can even create feelings of suicide)
- anxiety (mild or that seen in anxiety attacks)
- anger or rage
- headaches (mild to migraine)
- extreme fatigue and sleepiness (even narcolepsy)
- inability to remember and concentrate
- addiction to drugs or alcohol
- bed wetting
It is not only our mental state that is affected by food allergies or food sensitivities, but our physical health as well. If you have an allergy, sensitivity or intolerance to a particular food, it can cause a host of physical symptoms that may include some of the following and many more:
- severe fatigue
- muscle pain
- weight gain
- itchy eyes
- aching legs
- arthritis pain
- irregular heartbeats
- irritable bowel syndrome
- breathing difficulties
- chronic pain
- stomach aches
- gallbladder problems
- sinus infections/irritations/congestion
- restless leg syndrome
- autoimmune disorders
- gluten intolerance
Two very common symptoms of food sensitivity are recurring earaches seen in children and arthritis. Eliminating the offending food, which is likely to be dairy or soy, can often clear chronic childhood ear infections. Sufferers of arthritis can often find relief by eliminating foods in the nightshade family, such as potatoes, onions or tomatoes.
Another common sign of food allergies is alcoholism. When you’re allergic to a particular food, they are not metabolized correctly in the body and result in psychoactive chemicals that give you a temporary high similar to alcohol. These substances interfere in neurotransmitter functioning and simulate the physiological process of addiction in the brain like addictive substances and can lead to cravings for alcohol and/or drugs. When an alcoholic craves a drink, it’s not the alcohol they crave, it’s the food that the alcohol is derived from and the alcohol only works as catalyst to hasten the process of absorption. This is one of the primary reasons why most alcoholics struggle so much to maintain sobriety and relapse is so frequent.
Most Common Food Sensitivities
While it is possible for any food under the sun to create symptoms, these are some of the most common offending foods:
Sometimes it is not the actual food causing the sensitivity, but the additives in the food such as:
- food colorings or dyes
Some of the most common symptoms from additives and preservatives are anxiety, hyperactivity, learning disabilities and disturbances in mood and thought to name a few. Research links food additive sensitivity, allergy or intolerance to numerous mental and physical disorders, especially hyperactivity. In one study, the behavior of children in institutions with criminal backgrounds was found to improve dramatically by removing foods that contained sugar, preservatives, additives and food colorings and replacing it with healthy and wholesome foods. The improvements in behavior were so impressive that institutions involved in the study never returned to their previous menu.
How Do You Identify Food Sensitivities?
Foods that you crave are a good indication that this food is an offending substance for you. This may be confusing because initially you feel good after eating a food you crave, but then after the initial positive response, the negative symptoms occur and then your craving for the food may return. Foods that you have a strong aversion to may also be a clue that this is one of your food allergies.
Do you crave specific foods in the same way an alcoholic or drug addict craves alcohol and/or drugs?. If so, then you probably have food allergies or sensitivities. When I first learned I had Candida and a cane sugar allergy and I was trying to give up sweets, I literally wrestled a friend to the floor in the aisle of a grocery store for a Twinkie. I had asked her to help me kick my sugar habit so she was intervening by taking the Twinkie away from me, but I wouldn’t have it. After fighting to the death for it, I ran to the checkout line, out the door and shoved it in my mouth. Now this is clearly the behavior of a sugar addict.
The biochemical process that occurs with a food allergy can trigger loss of control such as my behavior described above and binging. When you try and give up the foods you are allergic or sensitive to, you may even have withdrawal symptoms similar to that of alcohol withdrawal.
To discover if food allergies or sensitivities are creating your symptoms, you can begin by keeping a journal of what you eat and how you feel. Jot down notes of your mood state, energy levels and physical symptoms. Keep in mind that some symptoms are delayed. Meaning they occur a good period of time after the food is eaten. For example, pain in the joints may occur the following day after eating an offending food rather than immediately after eating the food. The book I mentioned a little earlier called Your Hidden Food Allergies are Making You Fat can help you understand this aspect in more depth as well.
You may also do an elimination diet, which is a diet where you eliminate the suspected foods and then reintroduce them into the diet to monitor their impact on your physical and emotional health. For someone who is astutely aware and in touch with their body, this method can work well, but for many they are not able to develop this ability. Additionally, all other extenuating factors must be taken into account and ruled out like environment or life events, which can be difficult as well. So, another easier method for testing food sensitivities is with the use of the ALCAT test. This simple lab test that can be sent to your home will identify your sensitivities and provide you with a customized diet plan as well as an abundance of nutritional information. However, the ALCAT test will only identify food sensitivities, not true allergy. To test for true food allergies, it requires a different type of test that must be performed by a medical doctor. Standard food allergy testing will not identify food sensitivities and food sensitivity testing doesn’t always identify true food allergy, so both tests are needed to identify sensitivities and allergies.
To help you isolate your true food allergies, it is best to seek out the care of a qualified medical professional who is knowledgeable about food allergies and sensitivity. It is unlikely that your local General Practitioner will be able to help you with this. Your best choice for a competent doctor knowledgeable in these areas is a Doctor of Environmental Medicine, a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine, a Doctor of Orthomolecular Medicine or a Naturopathic Doctor and can be found by contacting the American Holistic Medical Association, the American Academy of Environmental Medicine, the American Holistic Health Association or the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians.
Once you find the appropriate health care professional, they can help guide you in this process with perhaps food allergy testing or elimination diets. It is very important to be under the care of a physician during elimination diets because once you remove an offending food from your diet and you reintroduce it, severe life-threatening symptoms can possibly occur. This is rare, but possible.
Sometimes your reaction to a food may be dependent upon other factors such as how much of the food you consume, or did you consume it on an empty stomach, what other foods have you eaten in conjunction with it or how frequently have you consumed it. It is possible, for example, that you only have a reaction to a particular food if you eat it on an empty stomach, or you only have a reaction if you eat it in conjunction with some other particular food or only when you have eaten it three times in one week.
After your offending foods are identified, you can improve your mental and physical health by removing these foods from your diet or following what is called a rotation diet. Some people may continue eating the foods they are allergic to by receiving allergy injections, but this doesn’t work for sensitivities. A health care professional can help you determine which of these paths is best for you and will also help you identify any other nutritional imbalances you may have such as deficiencies that may also contribute to your symptoms.
Lifestyle Changes and Adjustments
Giving up some of your favorite foods will be difficult, but don’t despair; it may not be a life sentence. A lot of times tolerance can be built back up for a particular food by keeping it out of the diet for a period of time. This time period can be 3 to 48 months. If your symptoms are mild, then perhaps the time period will be closer to 2 months. If your symptoms are more severe, then it will probably be closer to the 48 months. Although, some very strong sensitivities may never be overcome and in the case of severe food allergy they may remain forever as well. There are a variety of alternatives you can find to replace the foods you remove. For instance if you are an ice cream lover and you must give up dairy, there are several delicious ice cream alternatives, or if you are a chocolate lover, you can learn to savor the delicious flavor of carob. Both of these can be found in health food stores.
Change is always difficult and changing your diet can prove to be one of the most difficult to achieve. If you are eliminating just one food, this may not be as big a challenge as someone who has found that they have ten or twelve offending foods. You may be looking at profound life alterations such as no eating out, taking your own food to social gatherings, etc. You will probably have many set backs and struggles on your new path. You may even grieve the loss of your beloved food. Be patient and forgiving of yourself, but also be persistent. If you fall off the food allergies wagon and give in to temptation don’t beat yourself up. Just brush yourself off and get back on. Understand that it is a process and seek emotional support if necessary.