As a Certified Holistic Nutritional Consultant, I hear a lot of questions (and a lot of doubt) about food sensitivities. It seems as though so many people have become more and more sensitive to new foods over the past decade, but along with the increase in awareness comes an increase in doubt over the validity of the issue. Many people see this concern as trendy, as something that has been created by those in the natural health world in order to profit on allergen-free products. There is definitely more to it than that, but there needs to be more conversation around the topic in order to fully understand it.
One of the most common questions that I get is “What is a food sensitivity?” Or, “What is the difference between a sensitivity, an intolerance, and an allergy?”. If you have an allergy to a certain food, your immune system will produce what is called IgE antibodies. If you are exposed to that food, your body will go through an immediate immune response, which can be very dangerous and even life-threatening in some situations. An intolerance or a sensitivity, on the other hand, can show up as delayed reactions. The reason behind these reactions can vary; sensitivities can be caused by an underlying issue in the gut, like intestinal permeability or a bacterial imbalance, for example. In this scenario, your body will produce IgG antibodies, which can result in a reaction up to 3 days after ingesting the food. An intolerance can also be the result of insufficient enzyme production, such as lactose intolerance, which stems from the absence of lactase (the enzyme responsible for breaking down and digesting lactose). The delayed reactions and the variety of possible causes of the reaction make a food sensitivity or intolerance very difficult to narrow down.
So why are these issues suddenly so common? There is not one cause that we can apply to everyone that is affected, but there are some common contributing factors that many of us are exposed to. First of all, there are many ingredients and types of foods that are widely used in the production of processed foods. For those of us who eat a diet rich in pre-made and processed items, we are continuously exposed to foods like corn, soy, dairy, and canola without even realizing it. Many of us are also nutrient-deficient due to a heavily processed diet, which can alter the body’s ability to function optimally. We are also under more stress than ever before, and this, combined with other factors like a sedentary lifestyle, can contribute to inflammation in the body, and damage to our digestive systems over time. As is the case with many health issues, food sensitivities are often an accumulation of small issues over long periods of time.
With the rise in popularity of sensitivity-free food options, it has become much more common for many of us to cut certain foods out of our diet. But should we all be gluten-free? Or dairy-free? Or *fill-in-the-blank*-free? Not necessarily. Identifying and eliminating food triggers can be very beneficial when it comes to dealing with symptoms like digestive issues, brain fog, headaches, anxiety, and many others, but it is not necessarily a long-term solution. As I previously mentioned, food sensitivities are commonly a symptom, not necessarily the root cause. By addressing the root cause, it is quite common for trigger foods to be re-introduced back into the diet after a period of time with no issues.
It is not enough to make the assumption that foods should be removed from the diet simply because we’ve heard that they’re a common allergen. If a sensitivity or intolerance is suspected, it is often best to go through a process called an elimination diet in order to see how the body reacts once that food is removed. After that process is complete, it’s important to remove the burden from the immune system by avoiding any trigger foods for a period of time and to continue with gut healing measures in order to work towards a point where your body is no longer reactive and can handle those “problem” foods.
In the meantime, there are also supplements that can assist the body in properly digesting and absorbing the food that we eat, which can cut back on some of the reactions associated with a sensitivity. Two products that I would recommend would be probiotics and digestive enzymes. Probiotics can help to restore the balance of good and bad bacteria in the gut, which assists in digestion and helps to boost the immune system. Digestive enzymes can be extremely helpful if it is an intolerance that you are dealing with, as this is often due to your body’s inability to produce specific enzymes. Taking a digestive enzyme with your meal can drastically reduce digestive symptoms like bloating, gas, and acid reflux.
In conclusion, food sensitivities are definitely not just a trend, but they're not necessarily a life sentence either. Targeting the root cause of a food sensitivity is the best way to get your body back into balance, and back to a place of food freedom.