Ugh! Food sensitivities? Leaky gut? I’m not really allergic to this but I can’t eat it for how long?!?!
The world of food sensitivities and the underlying leaky gut syndrome that can cause them (and oh so much more) can be a murky and overwhelming place. Let’s shed some light on them with this guide, and we’ll look at some quick, easy ways that you can use to help your body start to heal and find your new normal. Many of the patients that I’ve worked with have seen surprising and impressive results (myself included) by focusing on healing their gut, and food sensitivities can drastically improve with a specific plan.
How can you tell if you have food sensitivities?
Do you have a lot of bloating or stomach discomfort?
Do you struggle with losing weight, especially the last 5-10 pounds?
Do you notice that you have “brain fog,” or difficulty in thinking clearly?
Do you have joint swelling or frequent, explainable aches and pains?
Do you wear out easily? Are you eating “healthy” but still feel fatigued? (there can be quite a few causes for this, but food sensitivities can definitely be one culprit)
Take a quick peek in the mirror. If you stick your tongue out, can you see the imprint of your teeth on the edges of your tongue? That can be an indicator of a tiny bit of tongue swelling in response to food sensitivities.
Are there dark circles under your eyes? Or, have you noticed them under your little ones’ eyes, even after they get a great night’s sleep?
What are food sensitivities?
Food sensitivities are a form of food allergies, and it means that your body does not respond well to a particular type of food. While they can be referred to as allergies, it’s usually preferable to refer to them as a “sensitivity” to avoid some drama; let me explain.
Food sensitivities are usually an IgG immune response to certain foods that you eat. It’s not the part of the immune system that responds with an IgE-mediated, anaphylactic, or life-threatening), reaction (i.e., think of the kid who’s deathly allergic to peanuts and has to carry around an epiPen). Given that there are severe, life-threatening forms of allergies, we call this IgG response a sensitivity because you can eat these things without the fear of death, but man they can make you uncomfortable!
IgE allergies are the ones that you should totally tell people about. The IgE portion of your immune system wants to protect you from stuff that could potentially kill you. The symptoms of an IgE allergic response range from mild hives to severe reactions like vomiting, lip or tongue swelling, and difficulty breathing. They can rapidly progress in severity, so please seek medical attention right away if you experience any of these symptoms! IgE reactions tend to occur quickly, within minutes to hours of exposure to the offending substance.
Allergies caused by IgE responses are not something to play around with. They can be diagnosed by a run-in with the offending food or stimulus (like the time I got stung by a hornet after one flew into my hair while I was nursing my 4 month old baby and my tongue swelled up and I couldn’t breathe and had to go visit the ER where I worked :P).
They can also be discovered by RAST allergy testing, which is the skin test for allergies that allergists love to order. For certain IgE allergies, an allergist might be able to give you a series of shots to sensitize your body to whatever substance you’re allergic to, and you might be able to eventually tolerate it (common things are grass, cats, shellfish).
But, oh, the murky world of IgG food allergies/sensitivities! IgG reactions are known as delayed response allergies, and they can appear hours to days after exposure to the offending substance. Yes, you are “allergic” to these things, but eating them tends to cause discomfort and not immediate risk of death, so in the medical community, we refer to them as sensitivities.
What causes food sensitivities?
Behind the scenes, leaky gut syndrome, also known as intestinal dysbiosis and small bowel inflammation, tends be the reason for this mysterious phenomenon. We’ll dive deep into leaky gut in another post, but here’s a quick run down.
When you eat, your mouth, stomach, and upper small intestine break down the food into small enough that your body can use. Your small intestine is where the majority of nutrients get absorbed. To make that happen, the small intestine, also known as the small bowel, is covered in thousands of tiny villi, or finger-like projections. Each villi is smothered in microvilli, which increase the surface area and give those nutrients even more opportunity to get absorbed (isn’t God amazing in how He made us?!).
The microvilli have small holes in between them where the nutrients slip in to get assimilated into the body. For various reasons (discussed in the leaky gut post), these holes can be larger than they should be, and that can allow larger molecules to slip in or “leak” in, hence the name.
These bigger molecules can trigger a response from the immune system. The immune system grabs some of them up while they circulate through your body. Sometimes, it deposits these immune/food molecule complexes in weird places, like your joints or other areas that are swollen. This can lead to bloating, aches and pains, hard-to-lose weight gain, and more.
That’s the prevailing theory behind how food sensitivities occur and why they can wreak havoc on your body.
How do you find out what you’re sensitive to?
There are two main ways to discover the causes of your food sensitivities, one fairly quick and expensive and the other is cheap and less exact.
First, you can visit a holistic or integrative health care provider and get an IgG panel done. This is a blood test, and it often is not covered by insurance (occasionally I could get it covered by coding it under the “intestinal dysbiosis” medical diagnosis, but it was rare to really see insurance pick up that claim). Cost varied by patient. The results typically take at least 2 weeks to come back.
When you get your IgG results, the provider will discuss them with you. The foods that you’ve reacted to will have varying degrees of reactivity. For the ones that you are least sensitive to, you will be asked to remove them from your diet for one to two months to heal up your gut and give your body a chance to heal up from the inflammation caused by eating stuff you’re sensitive to. For the higher degrees of reaction, you could be directed to remove that food for up to four to six months.
Yah, I know 4 to 6 months is quite a while! When I was first tested, my worst sensitivities were coffee and egg whites! Yikes!! Six months is a looooooong time without coffee for this wanna-be-barista (seriously, I used to fantasize about quitting my first job in a busy ER and working at Starbucks so my job would be to give people coffee and make them happy)! But, I had hives so often that it was worth it to eliminate coffee and heal up that leaky gut.
Second, you can put yourself on an elimination diet. With an elimination diet, you pull out the 8 most common American allergies, and after one month, you slowly add them back in. You start with just one new potential allergen a week and assess your own reaction to it. How do you feel? Have your symptoms returned?
The elimination diet won’t pick up every little thing that your body is sensitive to, but it can be a great starting point. Common things are common, so it’s more likely that you can find the big offenders this way. Here’s the 8 most common food allergies to take out of your diet for an elimination diet:
The 7 Most Common Food Allergies (in the US)
Some of these can be sneaky ingredients to avoid, so it’s a great idea to read your nutrition labels and stick to whole foods in their natural form during an elimination diet.
Gluten is the part of wheat that allows bread to rise. Unfortunately, it can break apart from the wheat and get released into the air during processing, so sometimes foods that are naturally gluten-free (like oats) can become contaminated by gluten at factories that also process wheat. If you’re extremely sensitive to gluten and for a true elimination test, it’s a great idea to go totally gluten free for one month to be able to more accurately assess how you feel.
Gluten has become a hot topic over the last ten years and with good reason! Stay tuned for a future post on this!
Corn and soy can sneak into everything, so be really diligent to read labels and avoid these two. Items like high fructose corn syrup and corn starch are common ingredients, and soy is often used with shelf-stable items.
Peanuts are a common offender, and it seems that awareness of peanut allergies is fairly high these days (nut-free school zones, anyone?). This one should be fairly easy to intentionally avoid. Some people are not so sensitive to the peanut itself as the mold that can grow on them when peanut butter is left non-refrigerated for a while. Either way, give them a rest and see how you do.
For dairy, lactose is the main component that causes problems. For this month, focus on coconut or nut-based milks instead of regular milk, and leave out cheeses to be able to tell if this is a problem for you. Common reactions are abdominal bloating and gas, but if you’re like me, you could even have hives or fatigue from it.
How To Eat During an Elimination Diet
1. Read labels.
Thankfully, the majority of the things we’re avoiding are highlighted at the bottom of the ingredient list, so it should be a fairly quick job to pick up on these allergens. Avoid anything with this sneaky ingredients.
2. Cook fresh food.
Cooking from scratch can be more time consuming if you’re trying to recreate nachos and pizza (I don’t love the dairy-free cheese alternatives, so I usually just skip cheesey things for this season). Try to stick to simple meals with basic ingredients and add some great spices to rev things up.
3. Avoid commercially prepared foods.
I’m so sorry to add this one, but restaurant and take-out meals can be packed full of allergens. For just one month, think about eating mainly at home unless you can verify the ingredients in commercially prepared food. If you eat out frequently, consider saving that money and getting a massage instead (it’s great for your immune system and will help you detox from the 7 allergens you’re avoiding!). Meet friends for a movie or a cup of tea instead for these 4 weeks!
The Whole 30 diet is probably the easiest meal plan to stick to while doing an elimination diet. I like this plan in general, but it’s very restrictive and designed to only be used for one month in length. That’s the perfect time frame for you to remove these potential allergens from your diet and hopefully get to the bottom of what’s bothering your body. There are lots of great one-month plans to get you started with this, and here’s their general rules.
After your one month without these 7 offenders, consider switching to a low glycemic index diet, like Trim, Healthy Mama. Excess sugar intake can increase inflammation in the body, and that’s exactly what we want to heal up. Be careful about diets that completely cut out carbohydrates (like the complex, slow-burning ones such as sweet potatoes and brown rice and sprouted or ancient grains) as they can throw your hormones, especially your adrenal and thyroid profiles (which you need for good energy and metabolism), out of whack.
After the first month, add just one potential allergen back in every 7-10 days, and test how you feel. The reaction could be delayed as far out as 5-7 days, so it may be easier to keep a journal to record an unusual symptoms or discomfort that you notice. If you notice symptoms, keep that food out for at least 4-6 months while we work on healing up your gut.
Work Towards Healing Your Gut
The body was created in an amazing way, and you can take action to actually help your body to heal up its leaky gut! There are several steps that will lay a firm foundation for healing your leaky gut.
1.Take a good probiotic.
Probiotics populate the gut with healthy gut bacteria, which is usually one of the main problems that leads to leaky gut initially. Putting the good guys back in will help your body to start to heal. Probiotics in pill form should be considered for 3-6 months while healing up leaky gut, and then you can maintain good gut health with diet and lifestyle changes after the intense healing has completed.
It’s a good idea to switch probiotics after 1-3 months to populate your gut with different strains of bacteria. Additionally, these implant best while you’re sleeping, so take one at nighttime to ensure best results. Dr. Ohhira’s probiotics (click on the pic for a link) are some of my favorites! They have worked really well for my patients, but be careful to keep them sheltered from light and moisture. They can also stimulate gut motility a bit (i.e., give you the runs) so you may want to take them every other day for the first week.
If you have an overgrowth of yeast, then consider taking a probiotic of Saccharomyces Boulardii. Signs of yeast are numerous and can include bloated tummy (super-non specific, sorry!), white coating on your tongue, or fingernail or toenail fungal infection.
2.Include some good-gut foods.
These foods can pack a powerful punch to help heal up leaky gut. Yogurt can be a good start, but cultured foods like kefir, kombucha, and sauerkraut are even better. Okra and bone broth are packed with nutrients that can promote good gut healing.
3.Eat a low-glycemic index diet.
Overgrowth of yeast, typically Candida strains, can really prevent or deter healing, and yeast feed off of sugar. A diet that will not spike your blood sugars can help to tame the yeast while you’re working on good gut health. With the addition of all your probiotics, you may be able to starve the yeast and replant healthy gut bacteria in its place. Your one month of the Whole 30 diet is a great way to start, and I absolutely LOVE the Trim, Healthy Mama plan for continued maintenance. Please see a holistic health care provider for additional testing if you are concerned that you may have an overgrowth of yeast; symptoms can include a whitish coating on your tongue, finger or toenail discoloration/fungi, significant abdominal bloating not improved by the elimination diet, and more.
We were originally intended to eat food that was in season, for before the advent of refrigeration, people could only obtain food that was locally sourced and currently growing/harvesting or preserved. In this day and age, it’s easy to pick up whatever you want at the grocery store, regardless of the time of year. Many people tend to get in a food rut and purchase similar items each week. This repeat exposure to the same foods can heighten food sensitivities as the gut is constantly bombarded by the same allergens. Consider rotating your menus and meals with the seasons for both dietary variety and to ease the burden on your gut and immune system.
Healing food sensitivities and leaky gut can take time and some work, but the results are well worth it! Keep your eyes out for my upcoming post on the top foods to heal up leaky gut where we’ll dive into more details on those nutritional powerhouses!
Have you dealt with food sensitivities?
Do you have a leaky gut story to share?