What Are Food Sensitivities?

by Viktoriya Zabigaylo & Orest Szczurko


The general label “food sensitivity” encompasses all adverse reactions involving the ingestion of food1. This includes immune processes that are heightened as a result of a food allergy, or metabolic processes not involving the immune system, such as food intolerances. While allergies are more commonly developed in the first few years of life and largely diminish with age, intolerances may show the opposite progression (as is often the case with a lactose intolerance)2. All food sensitivities, however, are largely dependent on hereditary factors, immune responses, intestinal permeability and food exposure1.


Because food sensitivities can result from a myriad of physiological imbalances or abnormalities, the resulting symptoms may vary considerably in timing of onset and type.  Depending on the nature of the sensitivity itself, be it an allergy (immune related) or an intolerance (not involving the immune system), different reactions may physically manifest themselves. The degree of reactions can vary with the dose of the food consumed.  Because the irritant is a food that is ingested, the gastrointestinal tract will be most commonly affected, resulting in symptoms such as bloating, gas, nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea3. The effects often extend well beyond the boundaries of the GI tract leading to symptoms including, but not limited to, fatigue, headaches, rashes, eczema, acne, arthritis, IBS, respiratory effects, autoimmune conditions and even psychological disorders 2,4,5. While such symptoms are evident, other individuals won’t seem to be affected because their symptoms may be delayed or might blend in with other symptoms they may be experiencing4.


When a harmful molecule is ingested, our body’s immune response recognizes its foreign tag (antigen), and subsequently proceeds to induce the immune response, often involving inflammation.  In much the same way, certain foods can trigger the same, or greater immune response when ingested by some individuals.  The resulting tissue damage (leaky gut) can affect the permeability of the lining of the small intestine.  This creates two problems.  On the one hand, the antigens are better able to pass through the lining of the intestines and enter the blood stream, leading to even greater immune responsiveness4.  On the other hand, the damage of the intestines leads to difficulty of absorption of essential nutrients. Both problems place the individual at risk of not only a greater susceptibility to food sensitivities, but also various infections, autoimmune disorders and organ dysfunctions (if the food continues to overwhelm the immune response for prolonged periods of time) 3,4.


IDENTIFY     Several laboratory tests have been designed to determine which foods one might be sensitive to. Two such tests are conducted by means of drawing blood (or skin prick) or the electroacupuncture method. The latter involves assessing the body’s energy imbalances by pressing an electrode onto various acupressure points that lie along meridians connecting organs, through which energy flows. If an energy channel is blocked, physiological imbalances result. A galvanometer reading will identify such obstructions when testing each food item in relation to its effect on your body 4. While this method considers energy flow, a blood test takes into account the immunological aspect of the sensitivity. Specifically, a blood draw or skin prick tests for IgG and/or IgE antibodies, taking into account both immediate and delayed immune responses, as well as their degrees, to certain food items 3,4.

AVOID     The above tests are not always fully accurate, and may miss some important information. Therefore patients are usually advised to undergo an elimination diet followed by challenges (either in complement with the laboratory tests or alone), which confirms the foods responsible for the aggravating symptoms. This involves eliminating suspected foods for several weeks until the effects of the food sensitivities diminish 4. After this period, certain foods are reintroduced into the diet one at a time, and symptoms are carefully monitored. Once the food irritants are established, the patient is advised to avoid them.

RESTORE     While the avoidance of such foods is the first and most important step of recovery, the process does not end here. Under proper care and monitoring of a naturopath, supplementation may be recommended alongside the restricted diet to improve digestion, support liver detoxification and restore the GI tract. Helping to kickstart normal physiological functions in combination with eliminating the foods will finally allow your body to heel and recover.


  1. Genova Dagnostics. (2004). Intestinal Permeability Application Guide. Retrieved from http://www.homeopathicdoctor.ca/GSDL/App_Guides/Gastro/g_IP.pdf
  2. Jewett, D. L., Fein, G., & Greenberg, M. H. (1990). A double-blind study of symptom provocation to determine food sensitivity. New England Journal of Medicine, 323(7), 429-433.
  3. Pizzorno, J. E., Murray, M.T. (1999). Textbook of Natural Medicine.  147-151
  4. Taylor, S. L., & Hefle, S. L. (2001). Food allergies and other food sensitivities. FOOD TECHNOLOGY, 55(9), 68-84.
  5. Wood, R. A. (2003). The natural history of food allergy. Pediatrics, 111(Supplement 3), 1631-1637.

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