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Food sensitivity explained

What is food sensitivity?

We typically think of severe, rapid reactions when our bodies don’t agree with the food we have consumed—like an angry bout of hives, EpiPens and anaphylactic shock. Food sensitivities are different. Unlike common food allergies, these adverse reactions can be delayed and are rarely life-threatening.

But what many people don’t know is that food sensitivities can affect our health and our moods. What’s more, food sensitivities are largely undiagnosed. While they may be less scary than a food allergy, these mysterious and highly individualistic food sensitivities can still make us experience unpleasant and unwanted symptoms.

Luckily, with growing awareness and food sensitivity testing capabilities, it’s easier to begin the process of identifying which foods may be connected to an unwanted symptom you are experiencing.

Allergy vs. sensitivity vs. intolerance: understanding the science behind the symptoms

There are a lot of terms thrown around and it’s easy to get confused, especially since food allergies, food sensitivities and food intolerances often present similar symptoms and there’s a general lack of accurate information on the internet.

Food allergy

A true food allergy is an IgE immune response to a specific food, triggering a histamine reaction with potentially severe symptoms like anaphylaxis or hives, with a near immediate reaction time. An example of an allergic reaction is someone with a peanut allergy, who requires an EpiPen simply by inhaling a tiny amount of peanut dust from a candy wrapper nearby. People who suffer from common food allergies typically know about their allergens based on the extreme reactions and immediate response times.

Food sensitivity

A food sensitivity is a diffuse and poorly understood reaction to food that may be associated with increased levels of certain IgG class antibodies that are reactive to that food. Unlike a true food allergy, the symptoms can be delayed for a few days after ingesting the trigger food. People who have food sensitivities can go a lifetime without ever knowing they have one due to delayed reaction times and vague symptoms that mirror common ailments. Some signs that may point to a food sensitivity include bloating, migraines, and diarrhea.

Food intolerance

A food intolerance happens when you lack an enzyme needed to break down a certain food, triggering a digestive response. An example of this would be those with lactose intolerance, meaning they lack sufficient quantities of the enzyme lactase to break down the sugars in the milk, resulting in gastrointestinal distress. Lactose intolerance symptoms can be similar to dairy sensitivity symptoms, but a lactose intolerance isn't the same as a dairy sensitivity (which is a form of food sensitivity and not a food intolerance). Intolerances commonly run in families.

The key difference is how your body reacts once a trigger food is encountered. For both allergies and sensitivities, your body may produce certain classes of antibodies to triggering substances. Common food allergens prompt the production of IgE, while a food sensitivity may result from IgG reactions. Testing for these two antibodies is the most definitive way to distinguish between an allergy and a sensitivity, and an IgG test offers insights on what foods might be causing an unwanted and unpleasant symptom. Here are a few things to consider if you suspect a specific food is causing you to feel poorly.

Key differences between food allergies and food sensitivities

Food allergy

  • Immediate response
  • Possibly life-threatening
  • IgE-mediated immune response

Food sensitivity

  • Response ranges from 48-72 hours
  • Not life-threatening
  • Possibly IgG-mediated immune response

Food sensitivity symptoms

Do you suffer from any of the following symptoms? A food sensitivity may be to blame for your adverse reactions.

  • Headaches
  • Migraines
  • Feeling bloated
  • Stomach pain
  • GI distress

Common culprits

While food sensitivities vary from person to person, there are some common culprits often associated with food intolerance. These include:

Soy; Eggs; Cow's milk and other dairy products; Corn; Shellfish; Food additives and processed foods like sulfites or artificial color; Gluten-containing foods (wheat, rye, barley); Beef, pork and lamb (a lot of livestock is raised on corn and soy).

High FODMAPs foods, or fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharide and polyols, are certain carbohydrates found in common, often healthy foods and drinks that are fermentable, osmotic, and poorly absorbed, resulting in digestive distress and intestinal gas buildup.

Here are a few examples: dried fruit, stone fruit, cherries, apples, mango, papaya, sour cream, cottage cheese, yogurt, milk from cows, sheep or goats, beans, lentils, squash, garlic, mushrooms, cabbage, broccoli, onions, coffee, high-fructose corn syrup, agave and artificial sweeteners. Sorry, chocoholics, chocolate unfortunately falls into this category as well.

How do you know if you have a food sensitivity?

If you notice certain symptoms on a regular basis like the ones listed above and do not know what other factors may be causing them, you might have a food sensitivity. Since food sensitivity symptoms can wait to show up until a few days after consumption, it can be especially challenging and time-consuming to identify which foods might be causing your symptoms. That’s why for many, food sensitivities go largely unrecognized or misdiagnosed.

Traditionally, you would keep a food journal and embark on an elimination diet, removing possible culprits one at a time for periods of two to eight weeks. This process can be tedious, which is why we offer a simple at-home collection kit that tests your body’s IgG reactivity to 96 common foods, with results in five days. With your results, your body’s IgG reactivity to each food is rated on a scale of normal to high reactivity, which allows you to prioritize foods to include in a temporary elimination diet. Everlywell provides personalized information, education, and tailored suggestions. Our at-home lab tests are designed to keep you empowered and informed without the hassle and cost of traditional lab work.

Living (and eating) with a food sensitivity

The bad news is that there isn’t a cure. The good news is that by reducing your consumption or eliminating the identified trigger food, you can reduce or eliminate your symptoms. Everlywell provides you with a personalized results report with detailed information about what your results mean for you and information on how to set up a temporary elimination diet. After your temporary elimination diet, you might decide not to permanently eliminate certain foods, but you’ll have a better understanding of which foods may trigger unwanted symptoms and you can scale back on your consumption of those foods. It’s all about finding the right balance of minimizing symptoms and maintaining your desired lifestyle.

Here are a few tips to help you steer clear of those trigger foods and feel your best

  • Educate yourself. Learn about ingredients in the foods you eat. It’s not uncommon for eggs, wheat, cow's milk and other reactionary foods to be called by other names. If you have a wheat sensitivity, peanut sensitivity, or sensitivity to tree nuts, keep in mind that these ingredients are often found in many processed foods.
  • Educate others. Depending on the severity of your symptoms, it may be a good idea to tell anyone preparing your meals about your food sensitivities. That includes family, friends and waiters. At restaurants, it’s always smart to speak up about your sensitivities since many times, these everyday ingredients can pop up on your plate without your knowledge and navigating the menu can be confusing.
  • Stock the pantry. For those who suffer from sensitivities to common foods (like gluten), it’s important to stock your pantry with safe foods and appropriate substitutes to keep you on track and to reduce cravings.
  • Pay attention to labels. Manufacturers can change ingredients of their products without notice, so double-check ingredient labels every time you buy a food, even if it is something you buy over and over.
  • Our customer service team is on hand to answer questions and help you better understand your results. As always, we encourage you to share your results with your healthcare provider.

Everlywell provides you with a personalized results report with detailed information about what your results mean for you and information on how to set up a temporary elimination diet.

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