It’s obvious that consuming food is a necessity for life. The foods that we put into our body fuel us with not only calories, but the vital nutrients that power our bodies. But sometimes those foods can begin to work against our bodies, and at times, do more harm than good for us.
The trouble behind the science behind diet and nutrition is that we often try to generalize that particular foods are either good, or bad for us, with no respect for how each individual person uniquely responds to, or utilizes, those foods. One food may be an excellent choice for one person, and harmful to another. Further to this, over time, the way our bodies react to foods can change due to changing levels of exposures and the underlying health of our digestive tract.
Most people, including even doctors, (incorrectly) refer collectively to all negative reactions to foods as “food allergies”. This is also why we often feel as if certain foods cause reactions, but our doctors are unable to confirm a food allergy. There are three fundamental manners through which our body can reactive negatively to foods. And the truth is, most of the time, if you’re finding that foods have an adverse effect on your health, it’s not a food allergy. Understanding the correct and specific underlying mechanism by which foods are reacting with your body has implications in terms of proper treatment.
The most common digestive dysfunction in terms of food reactions, food intolerance occurs when your body is not capable of producing enough of the specific enzyme required to digest a particular component of a food. The most common food intolerance by far is lactose intolerance. In this example, we do not produce adequate lactase, the enzyme responsible for breaking down the sugar lactose, in dairy products such as milk, cheese and yogurt.
Because food intolerances are dependent on a mismatch between intake of the substrate (item requiring digestion) and the enzyme, we can often eat small amounts of, or certain forms of foods without symptoms, but larger quantities cause symptoms.
Food intolerance typically causes symptoms almost immediately (minutes to hours), and are generally digestive in nature (nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, stomach and intestine discomfort, rumbling and gas or bloating).
True food allergies are an immune reaction using an antibody called Immunoglobulin-E (IgE) and only account for 1% of food reactions. True food allergies are almost always immediate (seconds to minutes) and are always inflammatory, and often life-threatening. The classic example of a food allergy is the anaphylactic reaction to peanuts or shellfish. Some people may develop an “oral sensitivity syndrome”, often referred to as “fuzzy mouth” or an “itchy tongue”, where certain foods (often tree fruits like apples and peaches) cause an odd sensation in the mouth immediately after eating the culprit food. This is also considered to be mediated by IgE and often related to environmental (ie. seasonal) allergies.
True allergies can be identified using skin-prick testing or IgE-blood testing, but IgE antibodies have a short half-life in the body, meaning that if you haven’t eaten that food in the last day or two, it may not show a positive result on a test.
The third, and most difficult to identify, way that foods can cause negative symptoms in our bodies is through food sensitivities. Food sensitivities are a reaction to foods by the immune system using the antibody Immunoglobulin-G (IgG). IgG is very generalized and does much more than react to foods – This is a criticism for the usage of IgG food sensitivity testing.
Food sensitivities through IgG reactions can take anywhere from 30mins to 3 days to produce symptoms, making them very difficult to identify. Symptoms of food sensitivities are also less acute and are more a reflection of our body clearing the inflammation associated with the reaction (digestive discomfort, bloating, skin rashes, fatigue, headaches are just a few examples of symptoms of food sensitivities). Food sensitivities develop and are usually promoted by poor digestive function and improper breakdown of foods.
With intolerances and allergies, the reaction is immediate, so easy to identify the culprit food. But with sensitivities, by the time you observe changes in your health, you’ve forgotten what you’d eaten. Food sensitivities are be a chronic source of inflammation and digestive disfunction that over the long-term, may contribute to chronic diseases.
Optimizing Digestive Health
Minimizing the occurrence and severity of food sensitivities, avoiding issues of intolerance, and even mitigating the effects of food allergies in some cases*, may be aided by optimizing digestion and consuming foods that are more easily broken down and absorbed by the body. To this end, for many people, the consumption of fermented foods and probiotic cultures may be helpful in correcting dysfunction, and maintaining the health of, the digestive tract. With the introduction of fermented supplements such as Genuine Health’s Fermented Vegan Proteins+ line, more tools are becoming available to help maintain optimal digestive health and prevent food reactions.
Are you suffering from health issues that you think are related to food? My (biased) recommendation is that you seek the opinion of a licensed and experienced Naturopathic Doctor. Specific laboratory testing for food allergies, sensitivities and intolerances are available. Identifying the underlying mechanisms and addressing digestive function from a diet and lifestyle perspective is essential. Naturopathic Doctors are also trained to leverage nutraceutical and herbal therapies and balance additional integrative medicines to help manage and correct digestive dysfunction.
*If you have a known food allergy to which you have anaphylactic reactions, strict avoidance of these foods is paramount.
Dr. Jason Marr is a Naturopathic Doctor in downtown Vancouver, BC. He arms urban professionals with evidence- based, integrative, real-world tools to maximize productivity, creativity and learning agility while overcoming fatigue, stress, anxiety and burnout.