Can Functional Medicine help with food sensitivities?

Food reactions

Foods reactions can be divided into three categories; food allergy, food sensitivity, and food intolerance.

Food allergy

Food allergies occur when the immune system over reacts to a particular food. The most common food allergies in children include eggs, milk, peanuts, tree nuts, soy and wheat. In adults; fish, shellfish, peanuts and nuts are the most common offenders.

When a person with a food allergy comes into contact with the problem food their immune system launches a full blown attack. A massive amount of IgE antibodies are released. This causes immune cells to release the inflammatory chemical histamine, leading to allergic symptoms within minutes of exposure. Even a tiny amount of food is enough to cause a reaction.

Food allergy symptoms include:

  • Itching
  • Skin rashes
  • Swelling of the mouth, lips or airway
  • Tightening of the throat and trouble breathing
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhoea
  • Abdominal cramps and pain
  • Drop in blood pressure

Symptoms can be mild, causing irritation and inconvenience, or severe, causing a life-threatening reaction called anaphylaxis.

Those with severe food allergies needs to prepare for accidental exposure. This usually means carrying an epi-pen – an auto-injector containing adrenaline – for use in emergencies to counteract the dangerous inflammatory response.

Food allergies can develop at any age but most appear in early childhood. Some children will grow out of their food allergies, for others the problem will be life-long.

Food sensitivities

The term food sensitivity is used to describe an immune reaction to food that isn’t a classic IgE mediated food allergy. These reactions are often delayed and symptoms may not appear until up to 72 hours after exposure.

Symptoms can affect a wide range of body systems and include:

  • Fatigue
  • Sweating
  • Weakness
  • Reduced exercise tolerance
  • Abdominal pain
  • Bloating
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhoea
  • Food-induced asthma
  • Food-allergic arthritis
  • Pain
  • Stiffness
  • Itching
  • Rashes
  • Disorganised or disturbed thinking and emotions
  • Memory disturbances
  • Behavioural problems
  • Migraines and headaches

Food sensitivities are not usually recognised by conventional doctors so they often go undiagnosed. It can also be difficult to identify problem foods just from food intake and symptoms, as reactions are usually delayed. This means appropriate testing is essential.

Food Intolerance

The term food intolerance is used to describe a whole range of different, non-allergic, adverse reactions to foods. These reactions are usually related to an inability to properly digest or break down certain foods or food components. The symptoms of a food intolerance are usually dose related and in some cases can be reversed with the proper support.

Common causes of intolerance reactions include:

  • Lactose
  • High histamine foods
  • Tyramine rich foods
  • Foods high in salicylates
  • Food additives – MSG, aspartame, colours, sulphites etc
  • Lectins – founds in beans, pulses and grains

One of the most common food intolerances is lactose intolerance. This occurs when the ability to digest lactose is lost. This can be genetic, but may also occur after antibiotics or as a result of an intestinal medical condition. When lactose isn’t properly digested it leads to symptoms such as bloating, gas and diarrhoea. With lactose intolerance it is important to identify the underlying cause.

Another common intolerance is histamine. Some foods naturally contain high levels of the inflammatory chemical histamine. In susceptible individuals eating these high histamine foods can result in symptoms such as headaches, skin rashes, sinus congestion, and digestive discomfort. Histamine intolerance is often a result of a reduced ability to break down histamine combined with increased intestinal permeability.

How functional medicine can help

Identifying food reactions can be difficult, especially when symptoms are delayed and varied.

A functional medicine practitioner can recommend specific protocols and tests to identify which foods you’re reacting to. They can then advise you on how to plan a healthful diet that excludes the problems foods. This is vital to avoid overly restricting the diet or developing nutritional deficiencies.

Additional recommendations can also be made to:

  • Reduce the inflammatory immune reactions
  • Improve digestive function to improve food tolerance
  • Restore gut integrity
  • Support the bodies detoxification mechanisms so it can better break down problem food components

In the case of food intolerances, these steps can often allow the offending foods to be put back in on rotation. Your functional medicine practitioner can help you to plan this food reintroduction for maximum success.