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Food Sensitivities 101

Jul 12, 2023 | All, Inflammation & Autoimmune Disease

Food sensitivities are super common with autoimmune diseases, and they can actually make your disease symptoms worse. These sensitivities can be pretty hard to figure out because reactions are usually delayed, and they mimic many symptoms that come with autoimmune diseases. Today I’m covering what food sensitivities are, how to figure them out, and why they are connected to autoimmune diseases.

What are Food Sensitivities?

I’m going to back up a bit and talk about all the food reactions. There are 4 different types of reactions you can have to food. All of them have a similar mechanism. When you eat something that your immune system reacts to, it mounts a defense mechanism to protect your body. This defense mechanism mostly comes from your white blood cells (WBC) which include mast cells, T-cells, macrophages, etc. Your WBC triggers the release of chemical mediators, and these mediators are what produce inflammation, again, as a way to protect your body against foreign invaders. These mediators include histamine (which causes inflammation), cytokines and prostaglandins.

There are 4 different types of reactions to food:

  • Type 1: Allergy – When you have an allergy, your body responds by producing IgE antibodies. These antibodies then travel to mast cells and release histamine. Type 1 reactions are immediate. Reactions include hives, rashes, swelling and, worst case scenario, anaphylaxis.
  • Type 2: Food sensitivity – This involves antibodies IgM and IgG and the formation of antibody/antigen (food) complexes. These are typically destroyed by macrophages. However, sometimes there are too many of them, and they accumulate in your tissues. Then, other WBC like basophils and neutrophils are recruited and those release inflammatory cytokines and other chemical mediators.
  • Type 3: Food sensitivity without an immune response. No antibodies are involved with these reactions. Instead, T cells (which are WBC) are sensitized and interact with other WBC that release inflammatory chemicals that cause inflammation.
  • Type 4 Food intolerances. These are considered more of a functional gastrointestinal problem. These occur when the body either lacks the proper enzymes or does not produce enough enzymes to break down or digest food. Large, undigested food particles then travel to your large intestine and the bacteria in your gut starts to ferment them. This causes gas, bloating, and other unpleasant gastrointestinal symptoms. Common foods that individuals are intolerant to include: cow’s milk, wheat, food additives, food chemicals, and caffeine.

Food Sensitivities

In the case of food sensitivities, an immune response is activated, meaning the body’s immune system kicks into gear. This generally happens when specific food proteins, or antigens, squeeze their way through the intestinal wall lining. The body recognizes this antigen as an “invader” and proceeds to attack it, like it would with any other foreign object that gets into your circulation (1). When the white blood cells attack, they release pro-inflammatory chemicals, or mediators, to fight inflammation. Over time, continually ingesting this food causes the immune system to always be on attack. This sustained inflammatory response causes the white blood cells to settle into surrounding tissues and cause even more damage (2).

How do you test for food sensitivities?

Here comes the tricky part. There is no definitive way to diagnose a food sensitivity. There are plenty of testing kits on the market but few truly look at all of the potential reactions to food and food chemicals. The two methods I use with clients are:
The Elimination Diet

This is the traditional, highly regarded, and most time-consuming method for identifying food sensitivities. Common food triggers are completely removed from the diet for a period of about 3-6 weeks. Each food is then reintroduced one at a time to test for tolerance. The one problem with this method is the assumption that typical non-triggering, anti-inflammatory foods are safe to eat. For instance, if someone has a sensitivity to chicken and that’s not removed, symptoms will not improve. I encountered this in my own experience with food sensitivities. I discovered I was reactive to maple syrup and tapioca (cassava, arrowroot), both of which are allowed on most elimination diets.

Mediator Release Test (MRT) and the LEAP Protocol

This is the food sensitivity test I use with my clients and have had good success at identifying problem foods. The test assesses 178 different foods and food chemicals and ranks them on a reactivity scale indicated by green, yellow, and red. The more mediators that are released from exposure to a food or food chemical, the higher reactivity score it receives.

Food reactions are then rated on a scale. I use the test results to set up an elimination diet called the Lifestyle Eating And Performance (LEAP) protocol. We start with the least reactive foods and move our way up to the more reactive foods over time. Foods that are yellow and red are removed for 3 and 6 months, respectively, and then reintroduced or “challenged” to test tolerance. The downside to this test is it does not test for intolerances like lactose or gluten. And it’s not 100% percent accurate. After working through my food list, I discovered that tomatoes gave me major brain fog, but were a low reactive food based on the test.

Why is this Important for Managing Autoimmune Diseases?

Individuals with autoimmune diseases have a higher prevalence of food sensitivities. Identifying the foods that trigger an immune response and ultimately chronic inflammation is a crucial step in managing symptoms, healing the body and hopefully achieving remission. Also remember that intestinal permeability is increased with autoimmune conditions, so the chance of a large undigested food particle sneaking through the intestinal lining is higher, opening up the possibility of your body attacking that larger food particle.
Food sensitivities may be a key part of your healing process when you have an autoimmune disease. By removing triggering foods, your body will have less chronic inflammation and the chance to heal. If you need help figuring out your own food triggers, go to my contact page to schedule a free discovery call. You can also follow me on Instagram, Facebook and YouTube for more information about autoimmune disease, nutrition and lifestyle.

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