Are You Overlooking These Common Food Sensitivity Symptoms? What You Need To Know About Healing
Food is medicine, and yet, food can also be one of the biggest contributors to chronic health problems. Our bodies are alive because of the way the foods we eat either feed health or feed disease. You may think you already know this. No sugar and junk food, obviously, right? But food triggers can be much more subtle than fast-food French fries and supersized sodas.
Much of your individual body’s reactions to the foods you eat come from your unique biochemistry, microbiome configuration, lifestyle, stress level, and immune status. I have seen the healthiest foods flare up food intolerance symptoms in one person, contributing to inflammation in their muscles and joints, digestive problems, and brain fog, while the next person can thrive on those same foods. How can the same food be good medicine for one person and bad medicine for another? I see three primary causes for this apparent discrepancy:
Food allergies: True food allergies come from an immediate and severe reaction of the immune system to some aspect of a particular food. Symptoms of an allergic reaction can include rashes, itching, hives, and swelling, or even anaphylaxis, which involves swelling of the airways and difficulty breathing which can be fatal.
Food intolerances: Unlike allergies, these do not directly involve the immune system. Instead, intolerances occur when your body is unable to digest certain foods (such as dairy) or when your digestive system becomes irritated by them. These are usually the result of enzyme deficiencies.
Food sensitivities: These are similar to intolerances, but it’s often less clear why someone reacts poorly to a certain food. Food sensitivities may result in a more delayed reaction, and you might be able to digest a small amount of the food without issues.
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However, for some, continually ingesting a food that they are sensitive to can cause long-term chronic health issues they may have no idea are linked to a food sensitivity. These food sensitivity symptoms might include:
- Acid reflux/heartburn
- Brain fog
- Chronic fatigue syndrome
- IBS (irritable bowel syndrome)
- Joint pain
- Mood swings
- Muscle pain
- Rashes and other skin problems
- Sinus infections
- Stomach cramps
- Weight gain
- Weight loss
As Hippocrates says “All disease begins in the gut.” A weak microbiome can lead to increased inflammation and in turn, a cascade of other health problems – food intolerances and sensitivities included. For example, when your gut is compromised, like in leaky gut syndrome, foods end up passing through the gut lining into the bloodstream. This can put your immune system in overdrive and lead to increased inflammation throughout your body. With this hyper-awareness, your immune system ends up reacting to almost any food that passes through, including healthy foods like spinach.
How long do food sensitivity symptoms last?
Because of the inflammation caused by the sensitive foods, symptoms may seem constant in many cases. How long your symptoms last depends entirely on how quickly you get to the root of your food sensitivity symptoms and implement a professionally advised treatment plan. Let’s dive into what those next steps will look like.
The Inflammation Spectrum
Leaky gut syndrome and other conditions are really just the end scale of a larger inflammation spectrum. This spectrum can be broken down into three stages:
- Silent autoimmunity: There are no symptoms but there are positive antibody labs.
- Autoimmune reactivity: When there are symptoms as well as positive antibody labs.
- Autoimmune disease: When there’s enough body destruction to be diagnosed with a specific condition.
For example, the autoimmune condition celiac disease, is ultimately the end stage (1) of gluten sensitivity. About 10 percent of people with celiac disease have noticeable digestive symptoms but still deal with other symptoms like acne. Because of this, only about 5 percent (2) of true celiacs are actually diagnosed leaving about 20 percent of people unknowingly struggling with gluten intolerance.
How To Start Healing
From eating gluten just one time, it can take almost 6 months (3) to bring down autoimmune-inflammation antibodies. This is a big deal! There are multiple factors that can influence gut health such as inflammatory foods, stress, and medications therefore a lot needs to be considered when it comes to healing the digestive system. While I usually see monthly improvements in my patients it takes a full two years before dramatic and sustainable changes happen. It takes the average adult gut between 18 to 24 months to completely heal. Remember, this is a journey, not a race. It took years to get to this point of destruction and will also take time to repair.
Around 80 percent (4) of your immune system is located in your gut. It only makes sense then that healing your gut could bring relief to food sensitivity symptoms. Now, that doesn’t mean that every person and every food sensitivity will be completely healed forever – but it doesn’t have to be a life sentence!
1. Get lab work done
To begin the healing process, it’s important to find your baseline. If you think food sensitivities are a problem for you, labs will help determine both the cause and specific sensitivity. This will allow you to make sure you’re addressing everything necessary for healing. Here are the just a few of the labs that I run for patients at my functional medicine clinic:
- Microbiome labs: This will show you whether or not you have a bacterial imbalance and if you need to boost your good bacteria. Research has shown that imbalances can dysregulate the immune system and contribute to food sensitivities.
- Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth: SIBO occurs when bacteria overgrows up from the large intestines into the small intestines. This bacteria ends up eating the foods you eat and will ferment in the wrong area leading to gas, bloating, and if untreated, leaky gut syndrome.
- Leaky gut labs: These blood tests will measure antibody levels to show if there has been damage to the gut lining.
- Zonulin and occludin: These two proteins control gut permeability. Antibodies indicate damage to intestinal tight junctions.
- Actomyosin: This shows if there has been destruction of gut lining.
- Lipopolysaccharides: Antibodies to these these bacterial endotoxins in your gut can indicate leaky gut syndrome.
- Histamine intolerance: During an allergic reaction your body releases chemicals known as histamines. This is a normal part of a healthy immune system. Certain foods naturally contain histamine or trigger the release of histamine. Some people though, can have an overload of histamine due to a deficiency or dysfunction of the enzymes that break down histamine. This is known as histamine intolerance. It can create what is called a “pseudoallergy,” – an allergic reaction without an allergen.
2. Try an elimination diet
This is my gold standard tool for discovering food sensitivities. Removing certain foods for a period of time and then slowly reintroducing them will reduce inflammation, give your gut a healing break, and will give you insight into which foods cause a reaction for you.
3. Make sure to rotate your food
Eating a variety of vegetables, meats, and fruits will give your body a diverse range of nutrients and will also keep your immune system balanced as you start to reintroduce certain foods.
4. Amp up your gut healing
If you don’t work on healing your gut, it doesn’t matter how many elimination diets you do. Ultimately you’ll be left fighting the same symptoms over and over. Once you have discovered which foods you need to be eliminating (at least for the time being), you can begin to incorporate these next-level gut healers:
- Bone broth: This soothing food medicine will bring healing to damaged gut lining.
- Probiotics: Supplements in addition to natural probiotics like fermented foods (think kimchi and sauerkraut) will restore any imbalances in your microbiome by bringing good bacteria into your gut.
- Intermittent fasting: I often see great success with this functional medicine tool in my clinic. When you go for short periods of time without eating, you give your digestion a much-needed rest.
- Cooked foods: By eating only cooked foods you decrease the amount of work your digestive system needs to do to break the food down.
So, once you have worked on your gut health you may find that certain problem foods are now tolerable. However, it is important to remember that certain foods are naturally inflammatory so even though you can handle them, it’s good to still only eat them in moderation.
Seeking help from a functional medicine doctor
If you believe you are experiencing symptoms of food intolerance, it is always important to consult a medical professional before implementing any new diet or supplement regimen. As experts in the field of gut health, my team and I provide thorough testing and labs to determine what issues may be causing your food intolerance symptoms, as well as expert treatment and advice on what will work best for your body it's specific needs.
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BY DR. WILL COLE
Dr. Will Cole, DNM, IFMCP, DC is a leading functional medicine expert who consults people around the globe, starting one of the first functional medicine telehealth centers in the world. Named one of the top 50 functional and integrative doctors in the nation, Dr. Will Cole provides a functional medicine approach for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, and brain problems. He is the host of the popular The Art Of Being Well podcast and the New York Times bestselling author of Intuitive Fasting, Ketotarian, The Inflammation Spectrum and the brand new book Gut Feelings: Healing the Shame-Fueled Relationship Between What You Eat and How You Feel.
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