Detailed Overview of Food Sensitivity Symptoms | Everlywell

When the market seems to be saturated by GMOs, processed foods, late-application pesticides and hard-to-pronounce mystery ingredients on your food labels, it’s hard not to wonder what the effects these “modernized” foods are having on our bodies, especially when we consider how food allergies and sensitivities are indisputably on the rise. More and more, science is connecting the dots between the foods we eat, our gut and how we feel.

Symptoms can run the gamut when we encounter foods that don’t agree with us. Some we can see, others we can feel, others affect our mood and some just make us plain sick. Many go unnoticed or are mistaken for something else. They all have one thing in common: each symptom is our body’s way of communicating what’s going on inside. And listening to our body has never been more important—your health (and possibly your life) depend on it.

Your Body vs. the Food You Eat

While both food allergies and sensitivities stem from your body not agreeing with certain ingredients, there are key differences to know when it comes to taking charge of your health. The timing of symptoms, the severity of each, and how your body reacts on the inside are key differentiators here. A food allergy triggers an immediate reaction from the immune system, producing IgE antibodies to neutralize the foreign substance (aka the offending food).

Symptoms come on strong and quick, affecting multiple organs, even with the smallest exposure to the offending food. The itchy hives, the EpiPen, the trip to the ER. No wonder food allergies seem to get more attention—from our peers, schools, medical community, even airlines. And the frequency of these allergic reactions seems to be on the upswing; one study found that food allergies increased by an alarming 18% between 1997 to 2007.

Reactions from food sensitivities, on the other hand, are immune responses mediated by IgG antibodies. Symptoms, which are commonly isolated to the digestive track or chronic inflammation, can be delayed up to 48 hours and are often mistaken for something else. That makes diagnosis especially tricky. Many spend a lifetime treating symptoms with over-the-counter medications instead of diagnosing the root cause, increasing the risk of serious illnesses later in life.

For both, the best game plan is to pinpoint trigger foods, avoid them and live symptom free. The first step is paying attention to your symptoms and understanding what they mean.

Food Allergy Symptoms

When your body has an allergic reaction to food, your immune system kicks in. These symptoms can be life-threatening and can happen almost immediately after a trigger food is ingested. It’s difficult to miss the symptoms. For that reason, it’s easier to diagnose and you probably know you have it. You never forget that walnut-laced salad that puffed you up into hives with an ill-timed fat lip.

Understanding the warning signs and knowing when to get help are important for those who suffer from food allergies, especially severe ones. It’s important to remember that mild reactions can become serious in a very short period of time. You might have a trigger food a few times with mild reactions before a major reaction occurs.

Symptoms include:

  • Skin becomes flushed, red, swollen, dry, itchy or develop hives or eczema
  • Eyes may be itchy, water and red
  • The insides of your ears can feel itchy
  • Your mouth may feel tingly, itchy or have a funny taste
  • Your face, tongue or lip may swell
  • Coughing, wheezing, sneezing, or runny nose
  • Upset stomach, vomiting, cramps, diarrhea
  • Feeling dizzy or lightheaded
  • Drops in blood pressure
  • Constructed airways due to swollen tongue, throat or vocal cords
  • Shock
  • Chest pain or a weak, uneven heartbeat
  • Feeling weak, confused or passing out
  • Anaphylaxis, the most serious acute allergic reaction

Each year in the United States, there are approximately 30,000 ER visits, 2,000 hospitalizations and 150 deaths due to anaphylaxis, making it a relatively rare occurrence. The best thing to do is to undergo testing and carry around two EpiPens wherever you go. Food allergy deaths are preventable and with increased awareness, we hope to see these statistics fall.

Common Offenders

While more than 160 foods can trigger food allergies, eight foods account for almost 90 percent of all food-related allergic reactions with the potential for serious side effects. Reactions can be so serious, in fact, that there are laws in place to protect those who suffer from them. The following eight offenders, and any ingredient that contains proteins derived from one or more of them, are designated as “major food allergens” by The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA). That means manufacturers must include specific disclaimers on their packaging.

  • Milk
  • Eggs
  • Peanuts
  • Tree nuts like walnuts, cashews or almonds
  • Fish
  • Shellfish
  • Soy
  • Wheat

The most common adult allergies include fish, shellfish, stone fruits like peaches, plums and apricots, nuts, seeds, and peanuts. Slightly less common are corn, gelatin, beef, chicken, pork, seeds like sesame, sunflower and poppy, and spices like caraway, coriander, garlic and mustard. Basically, no food is off the table when it comes to potential allergens.

Let’s go over a few more details of some of the most common allergies.

Peanut Allergy

Reactions to this Western staple—technically a legume not an actual nut—are the leading cause of severe reactions to food, including anaphylaxis. Even a microscopic amount of peanut dust can potentially trigger severe reactions and it seems to be on the rise. One 2010 study concluded that peanut allergies in children had more than tripled between 1997 and 2008, a worrisome statistic given the severe reactions associated with the popular ingredient.

Egg Allergy

Egg whites are more likely to cause reactions than the yolk, but it’s possible to be able to tolerate the yolk and not the white—or vice versa. More common in children than adults, symptoms can range from mild to severe, common reactions include nasal congestion, rash, hives, vomiting and other digestive issues and very rarely, anaphylaxis. Cutting eggs out of a diet is a challenge since eggs are an essential, versatile ingredient in so many foods; they serve as an emulsifier in products like mayonnaise, a binder in recipes like meatloaf, and an aerator in cakes.

Due for a vaccine? It’s important to note that a few vaccines contain egg proteins, including measles-mumps-rubella which is generally considered safe for those with egg allergies, the flu vaccine, which is considered safe for most allergic people, and yellow fever, which is highly advised against for those with egg allergies. Identifying this allergy and speaking with your doctor before your immunizations is a good idea.

Milk Allergy

Milk contains 25 different molecules identified by scientists to cause reactions. The proteins in milk, like lactoglobulin, lactalbumin, casein, and whey, are the most common culprits. While it may seem obvious for those allergic to milk products to avoid things like ice cream, milk chocolate, and cream-based sauces, it’s a little less obvious when a milk protein like casein can be found in soy products, a common dairy substitute.

Not to be confused with lactose intolerance, milk allergies come with a myriad of symptoms, including all kinds of digestive issues, abdominal pain, hives, itching and even colic in babies. Allergies to milk are the third most common cause of anaphylaxis, after peanuts and tree nuts.

Wheat Allergy

Gluten seems to steal the show when it comes to carb-loaded food reactions, but a real wheat allergy means that you have a reaction to the proteins in wheat, an entirely different thing. If you eliminate wheat from your diet and your symptoms disappear, you have a wheat allergy. If symptoms continue even after you cut out other grains, it’s more likely you have a reaction to gluten.

For those with wheat allergies, rein in your carb intake and avoid foods like pasta and bread. Also remember that things like Play-Doh, cosmetics and bath products can have wheat-based ingredients that could prompt a reaction upon contact.

Food Sensitivity Symptoms

Food sensitivity symptoms and the foods that cause them are all over the place. Add the fact that reactions can be delayed and symptoms can be impressively deceptive, you’ve got a recipe for a lot of question marks and confusion. If you are experiencing a full range of digestive issues, food sensitivities might come as an obvious answer since our digestive track is the first to come into direct contact with food. But what if you have lower back pain from indigestion, or suffer from chronic sinus congestion or brain fog? Your mind probably wouldn’t leap to food sensitivities as the cause.

Here are a few of the many symptoms associated with food sensitivities:

Digestive Issues

The digestive tract is the first line of contact with food, so it’s not surprising that the most common response is noticed in the digestive system.

  • Bloated stomach after eating
  • Reflux
  • Diarrhea
  • Difficulty losing weight
  • Excess gas
  • Stinky gas

Respiratory Issues

Respiratory problems are commonly associated with sensitivities to milk products, which are known to increase mucous production.

  • Runny nose
  • Chronic sinus congestion
  • Asthma

Skin Issues

As your largest organ, the skin reflects your overall health. While a diet adjustment might not be the answer to all your skin woes, your immune system “speaks” through your skin and it’s important to listen.

  • Acne
  • Eczema
  • Dry and itchy skin
  • Dark circles under eyes

Psychological Issues

What we eat can affect how we feel physically and they can also sabotage psychological health. Feeling blue? Think twice before eating your feelings.

  • Moodiness
  • Brain fog
  • Depression
  • Fatigue
  • Hyperactivity
  • Anxiety

Other Serious Side Effects

The possibilities are endless when it comes to how certain foods make us feel. Identifying trigger foods and paying attention to what’s going on inside your body are critical steps to optimize your health.

  • Inflammation
  • Joint pain
  • Migraines
  • Headache
  • Chronic ear infections (common for children with sensitivities to milk products)

Likely Suspects: What's Making You Sick?

While food sensitivities vary from person to person, there are a few common ingredients often associated with food intolerance. Many of these sensitive foods overlap with common food allergy triggers. These include:

  • Dairy products
  • Gluten-containing foods (wheat, rye, barley)
  • Corn
  • Soy
  • Eggs
  • Shellfish
  • Beef, pork and lamb (a lot of livestock is raised on corn and soy)
  • Food additives like sulfites or artificial color
  • High FODMAPs foods, or fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharide and polyols, are certain carbohydrates found in common, often healthy foods that are fermentable, osmotic, and poorly absorbed, resulting in digestive distress and intestinal gas buildup. Yuck!
    • 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. Chocolate unfortunately falls into this category as well.

The Great Gluten Debate

The booming multi-billion-dollar gluten-free food product industry would have you think that the majority of adults in the U.S. couldn’t handle their gluten. In fact, one study suggests that up to 30% of adults in the United States are trying to cut down on gluten for health reasons. The gluten-free trend, a controversial topic among nutritional experts and doctors, has become synonymous with healthier options that help with weight loss.

So is there any science behind this idea or is it simply marketing?

Many times, the calorie count, the fat content and the prices are higher in a gluten-free diet, offering no true nutritional advantage over gluten-containing products. Most experts agree that unless you have a condition that is aggravated by gluten intake—like Celiac Disease or Hashimoto’s Disease—a gluten-free lifestyle isn’t necessary. Both of these autoimmune diseases are relatively rare, with 1% of the U.S. suffering from Celiac Disease and 5% of the population is affected by Hashimoto’s Disease (also known as Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis).

With such low figures, how do we justify why one third of the public thinks they should be eating gluten-free? Non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) could be the answer. Research suggests that 18 million Americans have a gluten sensitivity, a figure six times higher than Celiac Disease. For those with NCGS, gluten may spur any number of sensitivity symptoms, including ADHD-like behavior, brain fog, inflammation and digestive issues. If symptoms disappear when gluten is eliminated from your diet and you have tested negative for diseases like Celiac Disease and Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, all signs point to a non-celiac gluten sensitivity.

It’s easy to attribute much of the gluten-free trend to unsubstantiated facts, fad diets and gluten-free enthusiasts who deem themselves “amateur” nutritionists or consult Dr. Google for information. A lot of it is just marketing, plain and simple. But one thing is certain: more and more science supports the idea that some people just can’t tolerate gluten and occurrences seem to be on the rise. While we don’t understand every piece of the puzzle, it’s not something we should ignore. Before jumping on the gluten-free train, it’s essential to get tested for this sensitivity and speak with a professional.

Calling in the experts

You might think that based on symptoms and reaction times, you can do a self-diagnosis. But when it comes to the relationship between your body and food, self-diagnosis can be dangerous, especially when it comes to overlooking serious underlying issues. You maybe think, for example, that a gluten sensitivity is to blame for your symptoms when it could be Celiac Disease, a more serious condition that would require different treatment. What’s more, self-diagnosis can lead to unnecessary and potentially harmful diets that deprive your body of nutrients you need. This is one thing to leave to the pros. And the Everlywell at-home health testing kits make that super simple and affordable from the comfort of your own home.

How does food sensitivity testing work?

Technically speaking, the Everlywell food sensitivity kit uses an enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay, also called ELISA, to detect and measure IgG antibodies in your blood which tests your body’s intolerance to 96 specific foods when your blood is exposed to them. The IgG test from Everlywell, like all our products, is done from home at a convenient time for you. The kit arrives at your front door with a collection card, lancets, a USPS pack, and all the supplies you need. After you have received the home health testing results, Everlywell will provide tailored advice for you based on what we learn.

Like the ALCAT test, both tests detect food sensitivities. But the way in which we test a patient’s specimen is what sets us apart. Since ALCAT uses a cellular approach to test for sensitivities, they require much more blood which must be drawn at a specific facility and might be an extra charge. Everlywell partners with the most prominent CLIA-certified labs across the country for our specialty testing. What’s more, our test costs half the price of ALCAT.

How are food allergies diagnosed?

Everlywell doesn’t offer home health kits for food allergies. Consulting your primary care physician or allergist is a crucial first step. Since symptoms can be life-threatening, this isn’t something that falls into the category of self-diagnosis. After going over your medical history with you, your doctor would use one of the following methods to help make sense of your symptoms.

  • Skin test: Small amounts of allergens are applied to skin, followed by a small prick with a needle. If the prick becomes red or itchy it indicates that you are, in fact, allergic.
  • Blood test: Checks the number of igE antibodies produced in your body. In an igE test, elevated levels of certain antibodies help identify reactions to specific foods.
  • Food diary: Document what you eat and the possible symptoms that follow. Use an elimination diet to remove suspected culprits one at a time for two to eight weeks (the longer the better).

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