The old adage “You are what you eat” has crossed many a mother’s lips. Now the new wave of supermarket food-labeling brings to it an entirely different meaning. The shelves brim with gluten-free, dairy-free, nut-free, corn-free, et cetera-free products. You can proudly eat a GF pancake and proclaim, “I am gluten free.” But what is this phenomenon of food sensitivity, and why is it happening?
Contrary to popular opinion, food allergies are not a new problem, even if food intolerances or sensitivities are newer to mainstream culture. Although the topic is hotly debated as either fact or fad, more and more health-care practitioners are noticing patients with sensitivities to various foods. The “why” is unknown.
In my experience, food sensitivities are real. They cause chronic, varied and, sometimes, subtle symptoms. Such symptoms are frequent or uncomfortable gas and bloating, joint pain, unexplained anxiety, irritability, muscle aches, headaches and unexplained fatigue. Since food sensitivities can be as individual as the person they afflict, this list of symptoms is not exhaustive. To make matters worse, food sensitivities often exacerbate symptoms and flare-ups of autoimmune disorders, chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia. A food allergy is a specific histamine reaction that can, sometimes, even lead to anaphylactic shock and be life-threatening.
How do food sensitivities cause all these symptoms and reactions? Our basic understanding of this condition is that some sort of gut inflammation makes the intestinal walls extra porous and allows larger particles of nutrients to enter the blood stream. Since these are not fully broken down, the immune system patrolling the blood does not recognize them and attacks them as though they were a virus, bacteria or other harmful entity. Where that inflammation shows up, is individualized.
Why don’t allergy skin tests pick up on food sensitivities? There are many antibody markers used by the immune system. The skin tests only check for one type of antibody, the one involved in life-threatening food allergies.
The most efficient way to discover and treat food sensitivities is an “elimination” diet. You can approach an elimination diet in two ways. One, you do the full-fledged elimination diet. Two, you only test the most common food sensitivity-causing culprits. The second option is shorter in duration, but less accurate.
A full-fledged elimination diet involves eating a “clean” diet for two to four weeks before testing for any potential food sensitivities. The clean diet allows your body to clear out any inflammation from hidden problem foods. It creates a baseline of how your body feels without inflammation, and helps you recognize any reactions during food reintroduction. When the initial clean-diet phase is completed, you can start reintroducing foods. You test one food at a time. Testing works like this: On the morning of your test day, eat three to five servings of the food you are testing, such as gluten, before noon. At noon, stop eating gluten. Keep a diary of any possible reactions to the reintroduction, and go back to the clean diet for the next three days. If you have no reactions, congratulations! You get to keep that food in your diet and can move on to testing the next suspicious food. If you have a reaction, you have to remove the food from your diet and stay on the clean diet a little longer before testing the next food. The shorter option involves eliminating the top five culprits of food sensitivities: gluten, corn, soy, dairy and eggs, for two to four weeks, and then reintroducing them one at a time, as in the full-fledged elimination diet.
When testing a food, remember to look for any bizarre signs of a sensitivity. The common symptoms are headache, major gas and bloating, abnormal bowel movements, joint pain, and sluggishness or “brain fog.” But remember to watch for mood and emotional changes. I had a friend who did an elimination diet and found that she got inexplicably angry whenever she ate eggs. It was unexpected, but upon multiple experiments there proved to be a solid link between her eating eggs and her getting angry.
You may find elimination diets scary and overwhelming. Let’s be honest, they are scary and overwhelming, but once you identify any food sensitivities that you have, you will begin to feel like a whole new human being. Your health is worth it.
If you are considering doing an elimination diet, it is important to inform either your general practitioner or a health-care provider who has had experience with elimination diets. It is even better if they can help monitor and counsel you during your elimination diet, since flare-ups upon the reintroduction of certain foods can sometimes be significant.