Are Food Sensitivities For Life?
Food can be both our most powerful medicine and the sole reason for our sickness. Your body relies on a wide variety of nutrients that can be gained from eating a range of whole, clean food sources. But what happens when you're already eating a clean diet and still suffering from debilitating symptoms? You may be dealing with an underlying food sensitivity. These problems can make it so that even some of the healthiest foods cause inflammation in your body and a flare in uncomfortable digestive symptoms.
Understanding food sensitivities.
So where do we start when it comes to addressing food sensitivities? First, it's important to distinguish between the three main types of food reactivity:
1. Food allergies: These are correlated with the immune system and elicit the most serious and immediate reaction, including rashes, itching, hives, anaphylaxis (difficulty breathing), and swelling. This type of food allergy is irreversible.
2. Food intolerances: These intolerances are usually the result of enzyme deficiencies. Intolerances don’t directly involve the immune system and normal happen when your digestive system is simply irritated by certain foods or cannot digest them.
3. Food sensitivities: The reason behind sensitivities can be more difficult to pinpoint. Some people can even eat tiny amounts of these foods and not always have symptoms. When symptoms do occur, they are a lot less severe than allergies but can be just as debilitating and include migraines, brain fog, inflammation, digestive problems, and bloating.
"All disease begins in the gut." I cannot mention this famous quote from Hippocrates enough. When your microbiome is weakened, it can lead to increased inflammation and a cascade of other health problems including food intolerances and sensitivities. 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 cause the immune system to react and trigger inflammation throughout the body. When this happens, the immune system can end up reacting to any food that passes through—even healthy ones.
Familiarizing yourself with the inflammation spectrum.
Ultimately, leaky gut and other conditions are on one end of a larger inflammation spectrum, which can really be broken down into three separate stages:
1. Silent autoimmunity: When there are positive antibody labs but no noticeable symptoms.
2. Autoimmune reactivity: When there are positive antibody labs and symptoms.
3. Autoimmune disease: When there's enough body destruction to be diagnosed with a specific condition.
The autoimmune condition celiac disease, for example, is the end stage1 of gluten sensitivity. Only 10 percent of people with celiac disease have obvious digestive symptoms but battle with other seemingly unrelated symptoms such as acne or other inflammatory skin problems. This leaves only 5 percent2 of true celiacs to be diagnosed with around 20 percent of people struggling through gluten intolerance.
Healing the gut and food sensitivities.
Overall, it can take close to six months3 to bring down autoimmune-inflammation antibodies from just one gluten-containing meal. This is a big deal! Since there are so many factors that influence gut health—such as medications, inflammatory foods, stress, or nutrient deficiencies—there can be a lot that goes into digestive healing. In my patients, I can typically see small improvements on a monthly basis, it usually takes close to two full years before we can see noticeable and sustainable changes. The average adult gut takes anywhere from 18 to 24 months to fully heal. Remember that this is a journey—not a race. What took years to damage will also take time to repair.
And since 80 percent4 of your immune system is found in your gut, it only makes sense that by healing your gut you could reverse sensitivities. Now, that doesn’t mean that every person and every single food sensitivity will be able to be completely eliminated forever—but you don't have to think of it as a life sentence!
1. Get tested.
The first step is to really find out where exactly you stand when it comes to food sensitivities. If you suspect that this may be an issue for you, these tests will help you determine the underlying cause of your sensitivity as well as what that sensitivity may actually be. You'll be able to make sure you're addressing everything you need to. These are some of the labs that I run for people at my functional medicine health center:
- Microbiome labs: This can tell you if you have a bacterial imbalance and if you need to bulk up your good bacteria. Studies have shown that microbiome imbalances dysregulate the immune system and lead to food sensitivities.
- Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth: SIBO happens when an overgrowth of bacteria grows up from the large intestines to the small intestines. The bacteria end up eating what you eat and fermenting the food in the wrong area, which leads to gas, bloating, and, over time, leaky gut syndrome.
- Leaky gut labs: Blood tests can measure antibody levels and determine whether you have damage to your gut lining.
- Zonulin and occludin: These are two proteins that control gut permeability. When antibodies are found, it could mean there has been damage to the intestinal tight junctions.
- Actomyosin: This test can indicate destruction of healthy gut lining.
- Lipopolysaccharides: These are bacterial endotoxins in your gut, and when antibodies are found, it could indicate leaky gut syndrome.
- Histamine intolerance: Histamines are chemicals produced during any allergic reaction and are part of a healthy immune system. Certain foods naturally contain histamine or can trigger the release of histamine. For some people, though, there can be an overload of histamine from either a deficiency or dysfunction of the enzymes that break histamine down. This overflow is known as histamine intolerance and creates what we call a "pseudoallergy," which is basically an allergic reaction without the allergen.
- Cross-reactivity: This can happen when your immune system "tags" certain non-gluten foods with gluten antibodies. This molecular mimicry is almost like a case of mistaken identity, and your body ends up treating them as gluten. This will give you further insight if you have already gone gluten-free but still have symptoms.
2. Try an elimination diet.
An elimination diet is my gold standard for discovering your food sensitivities. By removing certain foods for a period of time and slowly reintroducing them, you’ll not only reduce inflammation and give your gut time to heal, but you’ll be able to see which foods cause a reaction—whether it be FODMAPs, high-histamine foods, or something else entirely.
3. Make sure to rotate your food.
Getting a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, and meat sources will not only expose you to a diverse round of nutrients; it will also help to keep your immune system balanced once you have started to reintroduce foods.
4. Up your gut restoration.
No matter how many elimination diets you do, if you don't work on healing your gut, you’ll end up fighting symptoms all over again. So once you find out what foods you need to be eliminating (at least for the time being), you can start to incorporate these additional gut healers:
- Bone broth: This soothing food medicine will help repair damaged gut lining.
- Probiotics: Fermented foods (like sauerkraut and kimchi) and supplements will help to bring good bacteria back into your gut to restore bacterial balance.
- Intermittent fasting: This next-level functional medicine tool is something I use often in my functional medicine clinic. By not eating for periods of time, you’ll give your digestive system a much-needed rest.
- Cooked foods: This will decrease the amount of work your digestive system needs to do.
Once you have really healed your gut, you may find that foods that once gave you problems are tolerable again. But it’s important to remember that many of the foods that we become sensitive to are inflammatory in nature, so while you may be able to tolerate them, it's good to eat them in moderation.
Ready to try an elimination diet? Check out Will Cole's class.
Will Cole, IFMCP, DNM, D.C., 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.