We all know someone who has a food allergy—pals who burst into welts at the sight of a shrimp, family members who bloat up if one drop of dairy sneaks into their dinners or kids who carry EpiPens in case they come in contact with a peanut. But there’s another kind of food reaction some experts say is running rampant and radically underdiagnosed. Widely known as “food sensitivities,” these reactions are much less violent and dangerous—though potentially more insidious.
“Food sensitivities are estimated to affect 35 to 45 percent of individuals,” says Beth Reardon, R.D., director of integrative nutrition at Duke Integrative Medicine in Durham, N.C. “But people often don’t know they have one.” What they do know is that they are grappling with any number of physical symptoms—fatigue, headaches, weight gain, digestive issues—and traditional treatments aren’t helping them feel better.
Allergy vs. sensitivity
It’s estimated that 12 million Americans are suffering from diagnosed food allergies—and 90 percent of them are caused by these eight foods: milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, soy, fish and shellfish. If you’re one of these people, you probably know it, says Steven Lamm, M.D., a New York internist.
“When you say ‘allergy’ to a Western doctor, that denotes a very specific thing—an immediate and violent response by the body mediated by immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies,” he explains. “IgE triggers a cascade of events that are hard to confuse: hives, wheezing, swelling, vomiting, even anaphylactic shock. The symptoms are very serious—and potentially deadly.” When you have these kinds of pronounced food allergies, there is only one cure: Avoid the trigger food at all costs.
Much more common, but harder to diagnose, are food sensitivities. Mediated by another kind of antibody, immunoglobulin G (IgG), the body’s response to a food sensitivity is slower and milder— though no less harmful to long-term health, says Steve Nenninger, N.M.D., N.D., C.D.N., a naturopathic medical doctor with practices in Phoenix, New York City and San Francisco. “With IgG, you might experience the detrimental effects four or six days later,” he says. “That means something you ate last Thursday might be causing headaches or reflux on Monday. It can be very difficult to make the connections between specific foods and your symptoms.”
But it’s worth making an effort to find out, especially if you’re suffering from any chronic disease—one with no definitive answers from Western medicine, such as fibromyalgia, fatigue, arthritis, gastroesophageal reflux (GERD), irritable bowel syndrome, migraines, sinus congestion, depression, unexplained rashes or signs of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). All of these conditions—and many others— have been associated with food sensitivity, says Jacob Teitelbaum, M.D., author of From Fatigued to Fantastic (Avery Trade) and medical director of the Dallas-based Fibromyalgia and Fatigue Centers Inc. “If you’ve been to four doctors, and nobody seems to be able to help you, you need to consider looking into food sensitivities,” he says.