Food Sensitivities: A Common and Misunderstood Culprit

It’s estimated that as many as 80 percent of Americans have some type of food sensitivity or intolerance.  These intolerances are very different, much more common than traditional food allergies, and are linked to a variety of GI disorders (IBS, IBD, Chron’s, colitis), autoimmune disorders (psoriasis, Graves’ disease, Hashimoto’s disease, RA, MS), chronic inflammation, chronic pain, and other health concerns.

Food Sensitivities vs Allergies

To understand the difference between a food sensitivity and a food allergy, you have to look at the reaction that takes place within your body when the offending food is present.

An antibody or immunoglobulin is a protein produced by your body’s immune system when it detects harmful substances, called antigens. Antibodies attach to the foreign substances so that the immune system can destroy them.

The five major types of antibodies are: IgA, IgG, IgM, IgE, and IgD antibodies.  Classic food allergies, such as a peanut allergy that causes one’s throat to swell, are mediated through IgE antibodies.  When a person ingests the food to which they are allergic, IgE antibodies are created.  The reaction is acute and can be severe. There’s usually no mistaking that a reaction occurred and what caused it.

Food sensitivities, however, are regulated by the IgG antibody. These types of reactions are much more common, but tend to be much milder and are often delayed. Also, people who have food sensitivities, tend to have them to multiple different foods. This can make them very difficult to pinpoint, because by the time they’ve had the reaction, time has passed, and they’ve eaten many other things. And, it’s possible to have eaten other foods during that time are also causing a reaction.

Harmful to the GI Tract

It’s not normal for your body’s immune system to fight against the foods that you ingest. When it happens, it can be harmful to your GI tract.

Food is absorbed in your body through the surface of the small intestine. The small intestine is also home to approximately 80 percent of your immune system.

When your body is constantly reacting to a food to which you are sensitive, it causes inflammation and breaks down that barrier between the food and your immune system. When the barrier is compromised, your immune system is exposed to foreign particles from undigested food and bacteria in your gut. This prevents your GI tract from functioning as it should and can cause symptoms that range from mild to severe, including: gas, bloating, constipation, and diarrhea.

Uncovering Food Sensitivities

Since food sensitivities are triggered by a different antibody than food allergies, they often go undiagnosed.

Many of my patients have told me that they had already been to an allergist and that the tests showed that they didn’t have any food allergies.  That may very well be the case, because they are testing for the IgE antibody to uncover a food allergy.  But they are not usually testing for the IgG antibody which indicates food intolerances.

When I suspect that a food sensitivity may be at the root of a patient’s health concern, I first ask a lot of questions to understand the patient’s history and diet.  Then, I’ll conduct tests looking for IgG reactions.  Once my suspicions are confirmed, we move into a treatment plan.

Some in the medical community question the use of IgG testing. But numerous studies have shown ample evidence of correlation between IgG reactions, food intolerances, and GI tract symptoms.  The truth of the matter is that, while there are medical breakthroughs every day, the wheels of medicine turn very slowly.  It takes a long, long time for the wider medical community to accept and apply new methods for testing and treatment. This is the case with IgG testing.

Food Sensitivities are Treatable

At this time, there’s no way to cure a food allergy.  The best thing you can do is to avoid the food and be prepared with medications should you accidentally ingest it.

Most food sensitivities, however, can be treated.

The reason that we can treat sensitivities goes back to the antibodies.  The IgG antibodies do not stay in the body forever; they are essentially recycled.  If you eliminate exposure to the food for a long enough period of time, you can actually desensitize yourself to that food and re-introduce it into your body without the negative reaction.

Treatment Plans

When we treat food sensitivities, we will remove offending food and allow time for the GI tract to heal.
For several weeks, you will go on a specially prescribed diet during which you are only consuming foods to which we know you do not react. This will give your body time to recycle those IgG antibodies, lessening the chance that you will react to the offending foods in the future.

We are also giving the GI tract time to heal so that it can return to its normal function.  Once this is accomplished, we can slowly re-introduce the foods to your diet, with the goal being to get you back to a more normal diet in time.

We might also introduce nutraceuticals and medical foods into your diet. These can serve many purposes, including: reducing inflammation, restoring normal gut flora and bacteria, and feeding and healing the cells of the GI tract.

Treatment Works

I have had many patients come to me with chronic GI complaints including diarrhea, constipation, gas, bloating and abdominal pain, just to name a few. Some of them have been diagnosed with certain GI conditions including IBS, IBD, Crohn’s and colitis, but many have never been diagnosed.  Some have been to GI doctors and have found some symptomatic relief, but the true problem is never fixed.

In most cases, after committing to the appropriate treatment plan, patients were able to resolve the sensitivity or intolerance. Some patients are able to go off of their medications permanently because we have restored the proper function of their immune system and GI tract.

If you have unexplained or unresolved GI issues, as discussed in this article, you may be dealing with a food sensitivity or intolerance. I invite you to my office at Innovative Health in Weston for a no-cost functional medicine consultation.