More and more people are dealing with food sensitivities. But what even are they? And how are they different from an allergy or an intolerance? In today’s post I’m covering everything you need to know about food sensitivities.

I’m no stranger to having food triggers or undergoing elimination diets. After a major IBS flare up in 2016 (you can read my story here), I put myself on a few elimination-style diets, and even more while working with a Naturopathic doctor.

But what even are elimination diets? And what’s the deal with food sensitivities? Terms often get mixed up when we consider the types of reactions we can have, so let me first begin by clearing up the three different types of reactions: intolerances, allergies, and sensitivities.

Food Intolerances, Allergies & Sensitivities

Food intolerances are non-immune related, meaning our immune system has nothing to do with the reactions we experience. Instead, food intolerances are due to enzyme deficiencies such as lactose intolerance where there’s insufficient lactase (the enzyme that breaks down the sugar lactose). This allows the large lactose molecule to travel undigested through the GI tract leading to all kinds of uncomfortable symptoms like gas and diarrhea. Food intolerances are not always life-long and can actually improve in some cases.

Food allergies are immune-modulated reactions involving an IgE immune response. IgE stands for Immunoglobulin E which is an antibody that creates a histamine release. This is where we see classic allergic reactions such as hives, itchiness, swelling and in severe cases, anaphylaxis.

Food allergies cause immediate reactions which makes them easy to detect. For example, those with peanut allergies know right away when they’ve been exposed because the signs are immediate and very obvious. Food allergies can be tested via skin prick tests and are life-long. Allergenic foods must always be avoided.

Food sensitivities are delayed reactions to specific types of foods caused by another kind of immune response, IgG (Immunoglobulin G). This is another type of antibody naturally present in our body to protect us against things like infections.

Reactions include bloating, gas, indigestion, fatigue, headaches/migraines and difficulty losing weight. In some cases, sensitivities can also show similar signs to that of an allergy, such as itchy skin. Since food sensitivities involve delayed reactions (up to 72 hours), it can be hard to determine the exact offending food. These immune complexes can also linger in the body for weeks leading to chronic exposure and ultimately, increased inflammation and symptoms.

Food sensitivities are associated with chronic conditions such as inflammatory conditions, skin problems, joint pain, migraines, IBS, and Crohn’s.

The good news about food sensitivities is that they can improve. But there’s a caveat: you need to heal your gut!

Testing for Food Sensitivities

There are two primary options for determining if you have a food sensitivity in the first place:

  • Elimination Diet: the gold standard that involves eliminating common triggers such as gluten, dairy, eggs and soy over a 4-6 week period and then re-introducing them one at a time while observing any symptoms. Food journals are highly recommended during this time.
  • Food Sensitivity Testing: a blood test that measures the amount of IgG complexes to over 100 foods. This can be useful but can also display false negatives.

Overcoming Food Sensitivities

Overcoming food sensitivities involves a few main objectives:

  1. removing offending foods from the diet
  2. healing and rebuilding the gut
  3. re-introducing foods again

The biggest thing to remember when dealing with food sensitivities (and allergies) is understanding the role that our gut barrier plays. Around 80% of our immune system is located in our gut through the roles of bacteria, mucosa, tissue, and the physical barrier itself between the inside of our intestines and our bloodstream.

When our gut barrier becomes compromised we experience what’s known as leaky gut or increased intestinal epithelial permeability, whereby the cells lining our intestines separate. This creates an immune response and is largely associated with food sensitivities among many other things. You can learn more about leaky gut here.

This is why it’s essential to heal the gut when food sensitivities are present! We want to make sure that our gut barrier is robust so that we can properly handle foods and other substances that enter our body.

We can heal the gut by following some specific steps. I’ve written about these 5 steps in a blog post here.

Once the integrity of the digestive tract is improved/repaired, we can start to slowly re-introduce previously offending foods and assess any reactions. If you’re in the clear, those foods are generally fine to consume — but to avoid problems from returning in future, it’s important not to revert back to detrimental eating and lifestyle habits that disrupted gut health in the first place!

If you’re looking for more guided direction on how to improve and support your digestive health, my 4-week Digestive Reset Program is a great place for you to start! This program was created out of my own experiences overcoming chronic IBS symptoms to offer thorough guidance to the commonly asked question “how do I improve my digestion?” Click the image below to learn more!

Have you ever dealt with food sensitivities? What’s been most helpful for you?