What Do Food Sensitivities Have to Do With Autoimmunity?
Actually, a lot. You will discover that the two have much to do with each other. Let’s explore what food sensitivities are and how they are connected to autoimmune disorders. In functional medicine, food is medicine, but what happens when the foods you eat trigger a reaction from your body? You can experience a range of uncomfortable symptoms. Foods may be aggravating your gut or your immune system, causing symptoms or even setting you up for autoimmunity. Functional medicine delves into the intricacies and the root causes of autoimmune disorders to bring you relief, a healthier life, and a better understanding of how your body works and what it needs.
Food Sensitivity is Different Than a Food Allergy
Often people confuse food allergies and food sensitivities – using intolerance, sensitivity, and allergy interchangeably. They are each different. Further, conventional allergy tests do not always show sensitivities or intolerances.
What Is a Food Allergy?
An allergy is an IgE immune reaction to a specific food. Reactions usually occur right away after exposure and can be severe and life-threatening to some. Common allergic reactions are a swollen tongue or runny nose or can be more severe like anaphylaxis and hives. Because food allergies are easier to identify through testing, people are usually pretty clear on what foods to avoid or eliminate.
What Is a Food Intolerance?
Food intolerances are not a “reaction,” but rather an “inability” to digest. For example, lacking the digestive enzymes to break down the sugar in milk (lactose intolerance) or the inability of the liver to process things like caffeine or alcohol. Common food intolerances include things like histamines, preservatives (such as sulfites), and lectins (the part of the plant that protects itself from being digested). Food intolerances cause inflammation in the body leading to problems like discomfort and pain.
Food intolerances may include:
- FODMAPs – short for fermentable oligo-, di-, monosaccharides, and polyols, is a group of short-chain carbohydrates naturally found in foods including apples, soft cheeses, beer, lentils, artichokes, and beans.
- Nightshades – these vegetables belong to the family of plants called Solanaceae and include potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, goji berries, and eggplants. They all contain chemical compounds known as alkaloids including solanine, nicotine, and capsaicin. Often the biggest symptom here is joint pain.
- Caffeine – found in coffee, soda, tea, and energy drinks, caffeine can cause an immune response if you are sensitive to it.
- Salicylates – used as a food preservative and in some medications, salicylates can trigger the immune system.
What Are Food Sensitivities?
A food sensitivity is harder to identify than a food allergy, since the immune response can be delayed. Symptoms may surface hours, days, or weeks after the food exposure. Symptoms are not severe and may not be gut-related, so you might not make the connection right away.
Food sensitivity is generally thought to be an immune-mediated reaction to a food (different than an intolerance). And food sensitivities are different than food allergies, which involve IgE antibodies. With food sensitivities, the immune system makes antibodies against foods such as IgG, IgA, or IgM (immunoglobulins G, A, or M) and these can be measured with blood tests. Antibodies are made by the immune system and are proteins that your immune system uses to fight infections caused by viruses or bacteria. If the same infection enters your body in the future it will help to protect you against it. Antibodies can be made against other foreign materials such as pollen, dander, dust, or foods.
There are a few different types of immunoglobulins, or antibodies:
- IgA – antibodies found in the mucous membranes of the lungs, sinuses, stomach, and intestines
- IgG – antibodies in the blood that help your body “remember” the germs you have been exposed to previously and protect you against being re-infected
- IgM – these are the antibodies your body makes when you are first infected with a new bacteria or germs
- IgE – these are the antibodies often responsible for food allergies, such as peanut or strawberry. IgE may have evolved to protect us against parasite infestation.
Symptoms due to food sensitivities can include:
Flare-up of auto-immune symptoms
What is the Root Cause of Food Sensitivity?
Leaky gut and food sensitivities are two sides of the same coin. Unfortunately, if you have autoimmunity, there is a good chance you also have a leaky gut (also known as intestinal permeability). The lining in your gut is very thin, but strong, that is until it opens somehow. Normally, your gut lining will protect you from all kinds of bacteria, toxins, and undigested food particles.
When your gut lining is unhealthy, it can develop little holes in the intestinal wall. This can allow undigested food, bacteria, and toxins to escape the gut and enter the bloodstream – triggering inflammation. Leaky gut can change your gut flora (the good bacteria that live in your gut) and worsen inflammation. Intestinal permeability can be a feature of some conditions including celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), and is associated with autoimmune disorders (especially lupus, type 1 diabetes, and multiple sclerosis).
Your immune system exists to protect you from invaders. The things that mistakenly pass through a leaky gut lining are considered to be dangerous invaders by the immune system and it reacts. Your immune system has an immune memory (creating memory cells for these proteins or undigested foods) – it will react to the invaders it remembers, such as foods that your body is sensitive to. Each time your body is exposed to a certain food protein, it will remember it and react by sending your antibodies to fight it.
What Are the Most Common Food Sensitivities?
First of all, this is an extremely individualized question. Everybody’s diet and sensitivities to foods are personalized as well as their reactions. Common food sensitivities include dairy, grains such as wheat or corn, and soy.
Gluten or wheat – Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease, not a food sensitivity, that is triggered by gluten and causes damage to the small intestine. Non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) occurs when a person gets symptoms from eating gluten, but they don’t experience the tissue damage, immune response, or diagnostic test results that are characteristic of celiac disease. Common symptoms of NCGS include brain fog, joint pain, headache, numbness in legs, arms, or fingers. People can also have sensitivities to other components of wheat (not gluten) or wheat allergy. We often see gluten or wheat sensitivities in Hashimoto’s disease.
Dairy – dairy sensitivity is an immune response to one or more milk proteins found in cow’s milk. Dairy sensitivity may show up as constipation, diarrhea, headaches, congestion, ear infections, and more.
Other common food sensitivities are grains (especially corn), soy, and eggs.
Elimination Diets Help to Pinpoint Food Sensitivities
You have symptoms and your functional medicine doctor suspects a food sensitivity and leaky gut. What now? The first step to discover which foods are causing the sensitivities is to do an elimination diet. The easiest and most effective way to do this is to eliminate certain foods from your diet for 3-4 weeks. You will refrain from eating these foods for a period of time so that your immune system and take a break. Later you will reintroduce the foods to your diet and watch for the return of symptoms.
Why Do the Elimination Diet for 3 to 4 Weeks?
The reason is that this is approximately the half-life of an antibody – so by removing these foods for this long, your antibody load is cut in half. It should be long enough to get rid of symptoms related to a food sensitivity and it gives your immune system a chance to rest and reset.
What Are the Benefits of an Elimination Diet?
You may think it will be too hard, going without certain foods for so long, whether they are your favorites, the foods you most often eat as part of your cultural cuisine, or they are just going to be a pain in the neck to avoid.
However, this part is critical to discovering which food sensitivities you have. And food elimination doesn’t last too long, actually. If you find you have a sensitivity, you will need to avoid that food for some time while improving your gut health, especially healing the gut lining. Most people are so happy to figure out what was causing some of their symptoms that they don’t want to veer off of their diet. Afterward, when your gut is healed, you will be able to add certain foods back to your diet in moderation – say every couple of days or so. This helps reduce overexposing your system to the foods it is sensitive to while helping to avoid feeling deprived of the foods you enjoy eating.
Elimination diets can help calm inflammation, pinpoint the foods that cause you trouble (such as brain fog, bloating, or fatigue), heal your gut, tune-up your healthy diet, and give your body and your gut a much needed break.
How Do I Begin?
This process is best facilitated by a functional medicine doctor to help you figure out your food sensitivities. Food sensitivities and leaky gut can be a root cause of autoimmune disease and addressing these issues can get you back on track to a healthy and symptom-free life. Contact us today for an appointment to heal your gut.