What’s Eating You?
Could Food Be Making You Sick?
If your body’s feeling “off” these days, but you’re not sure why, you may want to take a look at what’s on the end of your fork or spoon, sitting in a box or bag on your pantry shelf, or resting (seemingly harmlessly) on your plate. The old adage, “You are what you eat” is quite true – and for many of us, it’s precisely what’s behind our head and body aches and pains, sluggishness, sour moods, anxiety, foggy brains, and more. And it can even be true if you’re eating what any nutritionist would consider a “healthy, balanced” diet. I know that was true for me. I’ve spent the greater part of my life battling complex and perplexing health problems, and trying to determine how to get to the root of the issue, and not just mask it with medication. I’ve had my ups and downs – and it’s still a work in progress – but I’m happy to report I’m making significant headway, thanks to the knowledge I’ve gleaned in recent years, and some lifestyle and dietary changes I’ve put into place. I created this website to share my story and help others in the process.
Some of you may read this and contend food simply can’t be the culprit for your poor or diminished health. Maybe you’ve been food allergy tested in the past and everything checked out fine. You may have even been retested recently (like I was) and are confident that food, in fact, is not your problem. Maybe you fuel your body with only the healthiest foods, eat mostly organic and do your best to avoid processed, high-sugar foods. Food can’t be to blame for what ails you, right? Well…not so fast, Jack.
As a person who’s been plagued by severe food allergies since well before preschool, and still struggles after eating countless foods (even after a reputable allergy clinic recently informed me that only a handful of foods can now be categorized as Level 2 and 3 allergies), I am living proof that those budget-breaking allergy tests don’t always paint the full picture. Let me explain: When I eat many foods, even in amounts fit for a four-toothed toddler, I can (and often do) develop horrific headaches (sometimes within minutes of swallowing, as crazy as that sounds); painful tongue, lip and mouth sores; a swollen and itchy palate; top to bottom hives and welts; bloating like a blow fish; and…well, let’s just call the rest “digestive unpleasantries.” To add insult to injury, my mood can change, too, and rarely for the better – sometimes hours later, sometimes days. And the effects of all this can last 72 hours or longer, depending upon what and how much I’ve eaten.
You might be wondering how this happens, especially when an allergist cleared me on many of those very foods that routinely turn me into a nightmarish mess. The answer, my friend, is food sensitivities. While I must admit that my reactions to food are a bit extreme, you may be experiencing one or two annoying health complaints that also could also very well be triggered by your diet (again, even if it’s a so-called healthy diet. More on that in a minute.).
Intolerance or allergy – not always easy to tell
The Mayo Clinic reports that physical reactions to foods are common – although most qualify as a food intolerance, as opposed to a true allergy. Both can present themselves with some of the same symptoms, which is why the two are often confused. A food allergy differs from an intolerance in that it causes an immune system reaction that affects numerous organs in the body (some reactions can be severe and/or life-threatening). Symptoms of food intolerance are typically less serious and often limited to digestive problems; however, take it from me: even food intolerances can be severe and, often, debilitating.
According to Medical News Today, food intolerances may be caused by any one of the following (or a combination):
- Absence of an enzyme needed to fully digest a food (lactose intolerance is a common example).
- Irritable bowel syndrome. This chronic condition can cause cramping, constipation and diarrhea (and, often, alternating bouts of both).
- Food poisoning. Toxins, such as bacteria in spoiled food, can cause severe digestive symptoms.
- Sensitivity to food additives. For example, sulfites used to preserve dried fruit, canned goods and wine can trigger asthma attacks and other symptoms in sensitive people. Note: For me, it’s not uncommon for food additives to trigger migraines and hives, too. And I recently discovered a genetic component that could play a key role in my hyper-reactivity to foods.
- Recurring stress or psychological factors, such as the fear of a reaction prior to eating a certain food. The mere thought of a food may sometimes make a person sick, although the reason isn’t fully understood. Note: My doctor explained that anxiety – a real form of stress – puts the body in a fight or flight state, which can trigger a number of negative effects. I, personally, can attest that my food allergies and sensitivities worsen when I’m under even moderate stress. Click here to read more about the stress/food reactivity connection.
- Celiac disease is triggered by eating gluten, a protein found in wheat and some other grains. The disease has some features of a true food allergy because it involves the immune system; however, symptoms are mostly gastrointestinal, and people with celiac disease are not at risk of anaphylaxis with the condition. Note: Even if you don’t have Celiac, many people (myself included) are gluten-sensitive, and need to be aware of how their bodies react to gluten-containing foods. And if you’re particularly sensitive to foods like I am, you’ll want to beware many of the packaged gluten-free foods; many of these remove the gluten, but add a number of other ingredients that can spell trouble. In my case, I have a history of rice allergy and sensitivity – and it’s a key ingredient in many gluten-free products.
Pinpointing problematic foods
If a reaction occurs after eating a particular food, it’s wise to visit a doctor or clinic to determine whether the reaction is caused by a food intolerance, sensitivity or true allergy (I’ve found naturopathic doctors to be especially helpful because they tend to recognize and understand the mechanics of food sensitivities). There are some simple, at-home methods to monitor negative food-related reactions, too, although I’d recommend starting with the blood tests or skin prick tests and then use the at-home tricks as an ancillary approach to identifying food sensitivities.
Those with actual food allergies may be at risk of a life-threatening allergic reaction called anaphylaxis (a full-body, immunological reaction to an allergen, with symptoms that can include a rapid drop in blood pressure, a rapid, weak pulse, skin rash, nausea and vomiting, a narrowed airway, and shock). Anaphylaxis requires an immediate trip to the emergency department and an injection of epinephrine – and the condition can occur rapidly, even if past reactions were mild. Carrying an emergency epinephrine shot may be advised for emergency self-treatment in the event that anaphylactic-related symptoms occur after eating a particular food. Note: Most of my food reactions today appear to be caused from sensitivities/intolerances; however, my symptoms are so severe that my doctor advises I carry an Epi-Pen at all times. Although I haven’t yet used it, there were at least two occasions when it might have been advised (e.g., when the roof of my mouth swelled severely and I broke out in full-body hives after eating homemade guacamole – and when my lips blistered and swelled twice their normal size mere seconds after eating peanuts…all this, despite being reassured by the allergy doc that, according to my latest test results, I no longer have a significant peanut allergy).
I write this because I’m living proof that traditional definitions of food allergies can also align with food sensitivities. Experts note that allergy symptoms often surface suddenly – even after eating only a small amount. Allergic reactions also occur every time the offending food is eaten. But this can also be true of food sensitivities. Although this may be a somewhat rare occurrence, it can – and does – happen (and it happened to me quite regularly).
You may be wondering – as I did – the underlying cause of your food sensitivities and/or allergies. In addition to the aforementioned reasons, there’s another piece to the puzzle that many experts believe plays an integral role: a weak gut. I discovered it was definitely a contributing factor for me. Click here to read more about how a weakened (“leaky”) gut can contribute to food allergies and/or sensitivities – and how you can help heal it like I did.
The bottom line
Food can fuel us, nourish us and heal us, but it can also wreak serious havoc on our bodies and minds (Click here to read more on brain allergies – yep, it’s actually a thing, researchers say), and it’s up to us to be our own personal wellness advocates to help suss out the foods that might be behind our health woes. (Remember, even the most nutritious foods can prove detrimental if a person is allergic, sensitive or intolerant. Prior to my sensitivity discovery, in a dire attempt to get well, I regularly pulverized cabbage, beats, broccoli, carrots and a fruit or two in my Vitamix to create a “wellness smoothie”…and my health quickly worsened. The reason, I later discovered, was a severe sensitivity to cabbage, beats and pineapple. A-ha!)
Bona fide allergies are nothing to sneeze at (pun intended) and can rear their ugly head in life-threatening ways, but food sensitivities and intolerances can be equally life altering — even if some traditional medical doctors fail to recognize or understand them. I happen to suffer from both, so I write this from experience. If you suffer a similar challenge (or believe you may), rest assured, with some vigilant sleuthing and due diligence, it is possible to kick food-related health challenges to the curb or, in the very least, manage them in a way that promotes health, happiness and wellness.