Integrative Medicine Blog

Food Sensitivities: Why Are We All Reacting to Food?

Holly J. Niles, MS, CNS, LDN Sunday, May 08, 2016
Istock food allergy

How food is affecting our immune system.

One of the main jobs of our immune system is to evaluate everything that comes into our body as either friend or foe. When germs come into the body the immune system wants to capture them and remove them from our body. This type of response is exactly what we want the body to be able to do—to be on the watch for things that could harm us.

When we speak about the immune system in reference to food, we’re talking more specifically about the “gut”. We know that about 70% of our immune system lives in the gut and it’s actually the gate or barrier where our digested foods cross into our blood stream for the body to utilize. The impact of food as a possible immune challenge is significant as we don’t want our immune system having a reaction to food. Many people have autoimmune diseases and other imbalances that are connected to a lack of immune health. Since we eat every day and often, several times per day, it’s so important to know what/if foods are a challenge for our body. If we continually eat something that the body sees as a foe, especially when our immune system is already challenged, that can create a problem for the body.

Why are we having so many reactions?

1.Processed food: Our American diet has more processed foods with additives and chemicals which are seen as toxins or foreign invaders and can change the environment of our “gut”, making us more sensitive

2.Antibiotics: Research shows that antibiotics have been used too often to treat illness. Antibiotics work to kill “bad bugs” in our gut but they also kill “good bugs” that are the foundation of our immune system. This can change the landscape of our gut and make it more permeable. The increase allows our body to be more reactive to foods.

3.Stress: The gut is sometimes referred to as our second brain because of the nervous system that lives there. Chronic stress causes our body to secrete stress chemicals on a regular basis. This process wears down our immune system and makes us more susceptible to food sensitivities.

Here’s some basic definitions:

Food Allergies: A rapid immune response which is why they are often life-threatening (for example, peanuts or tree nuts).

Food Sensitivities: A slower forming immune response which makes them more difficult to pin down (sometimes dairy and gluten can fall into this category).

Food Intolerances: Non-immune reaction to food (e.g. lactose intolerance which means you don’t digest the “sugar” of dairy in the form of lactose).

An allergy is commonly diagnosed by your primary care doctor or an allergy specialist doctor like an immunologist. Food sensitivities can be harder to determine. They take longer to present and can impact the body in a number of ways. Some of these types of reactions include: digestive challenges such as bloating/constipation/nausea, sneezing, joint pain, hives, fatigue and even brain fog.

How do you proceed if you think you may have food sensitivities?

The gold standard to determine sensitivities is an elimination diet where you avoid the suspected foods for at least 3 weeks and up to 4-6 weeks. The most common reactive foods are: gluten, dairy, eggs, soy, peanut and corn. Some people notice improvement in how they feel shortly after removing the food; for other people, it can take a few weeks to see improvements. In the environment of an elimination diet it’s also important to avoid processed foods, support digestion by chewing well and eating calmly and overall reducing stress. It’s best to set the elimination diet in an overall healthy lifestyle to help get the clearest feedback from your body.