What Causes Sensitivity to Food?

When I was younger, I could eat anything. And often did as I explored foods from around the world either through my international cookbooks or my travels. Now I have to watch what I eat. Like many people, I had to mentally adjust to this change. I loved food and felt like every whole food brought its unique contributions to my diet. But while every food (minus all the heavily processed junk food) is healthy for somebody, it isn’t necessary healthy for me.

I see patients go through this same emotional struggle when we identify their problem foods. After we do food sensitivity testing, they might see that they can no longer have dairy or eggs or yeast. And as they cope with having to change their diets, the question often comes up: why am I reacting to this now when I didn’t used to? Sometimes, we review their health history closely and realize that they likely had problems with a particular food since they were young. Maybe back then it was contributing to their ear infection or eczema or other issues during childhood. The body’s reaction is maybe what has changed and now they are having digestive discomfort that wasn’t common before.  In other cases, food sensitivities and reactions can be a later in life development.

So what is causing all of these cases of gluten and dairy intolerance?

There can be different things going on depending on the person. So here are the factors that I most often consider:

  • Genetics
    • Some of us were born with a predisposition to have trouble with a particular food. Often someone else in our family reacts to this same food.
  • Genetics of the food
    • Changes have happened to the genetics of cows and wheat leading to versions of their proteins that didn’t exist before. Many of our bodies don’t know how to deal with these new versions of casein and gluten.
  • Microbiome problems
    • When there is an overgrowth of problematic microorganisms in the gut, it can lead to inflammation and leaky gut. Often these cases, the reactive foods we find on testing are ones that my patient eats nearly every day.
  • Chemicals
    • Sometimes we are reacting to chemicals or toxins in our food supply instead of the food itself. A common example is the glyphosate (Round Up) that is heavily sprayed on our crops, especially wheat shortly before its harvest.
  • Stress
    • I am sure you don’t know anyone dealing with this! Stress dramatically impacts our digestion and level of inflammation in the gut and throughout the body.

A combination of one or more of these things can lead to leaky gut. This allows food particles that are not completely digested to pass through the lining of the digestive tract into the blood stream. Then immune cells respond to those food particles and can declare them the enemy, creating an immune reaction to them and increasing inflammation. This in turn can worsen leaky gut and other digestive symptoms.

There are even more causes and some that we haven’t figured out yet. But especially as we get older, the body may be having more trouble compensating for the impact that a particular food can have. A round of food poisoning or other challenge may have started a cascade of inflammation, leaky gut, food reactions, and more inflammation.

So we need to look at these causes and take a step by step approach to wind back the clock and restore the digestive tract: Test for problem foods, heal leaky gut, and deal with key underlying issues like stress or bacterial imbalance. This path can take some time but rewards us with better health and an understanding of how to stay healthy long term.

Published by drlaurell

Laurell Matthews, ND is a naturopathic doctor with a passion for helping people understand how to be healthier using dietary and lifestyle changes along with other natural medicine modalities like botanical medicine.

6 thoughts on “What Causes Sensitivity to Food?

  1. Hello Dr. Matthews! That was wonderful information that reminded me of my sensitivity to egg yolks! I’ve been having tummy issues again ( bloating), and eating a lot of eggs yes the yolk also. Tomorrow I will start again with just eating egg whites. It’s so easy to fall off the nutrition path especially when you’re hungry or eating out!
    Thank you for your story!
    God Bless!!

  2. Hi Dr. Laurell, It was nice to see your email; it’s been so long since I’ve seen something for you. I’ve known of a dairy sensitivity so have stayed away from dairy for years but then earlier this year I started having so much pain throughout my joints and muscles. I thought I may have another AI issue and blood tests did not show anything significant. I decided to do a strict gluten-free diet even though I’d done several elimination diets before and gluten wasn’t a problem before. Guess what? Going gluten free took away most all of those pains!! I still have to watch it closely. I appreciate your views on the causes. PS I am 68 now. Still have afib issues; have had two cardioversions due to persistant afib. Just went 3.5 weeks afib and converted on my own. I was so happy! I don’t want an ablation. If worse comes to worse I may give in but I really don’t want to!!! All the best to you,Kathy Reynolds, Harrison AR

    1. Hi Kathy! Thanks for sharing! I think your story may help others to understand that sometimes even though it is a pain to cut gluten or another problem food out of your life, it can sometimes improve how we feel on multiple levels.

  3. Hello,

    I have enjoyed reading through some of your blog post. I am in the process of being diagnosed with an autoimmune condition (RA or possibly scleroderma) – instead of waiting for my symptoms to get worse (raynauds + joint pain/swelling in hands), I have been doing everything I can to reduce any inflammation in my body through diet, exercise and stress relief. I recently met a functional doctor who recommended taking undecyn (Betaine HCL) to reduce inflammation caused by leaky gut. Have you ever heard of this supplement, and curious what your thoughts are on this regarding reducing inflammation from leaky gut?

    Thank you,

    1. Yes, I approve of the proactive approach you are taking with improved diet, exercise, and stress relief. Undecylenic Acid in that supplements is most often
      used for fighting Candida and other microorganisms. Maybe the functional medicine doctor thought that you needed to balance your microbiome in other to reduce inflammation in the gut. When we deal with these types of underlying causes, it can help use reverse the leaky gut process along with the inflammation. I usually also add some targeted supplements or foods for a few months to help the body repair the gut lining.

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