Understanding Food Sensitivity: Causes and Common Forms


Food sensitivity is different from a food allergy. The former is rarely life-threatening, while the latter can involve intense reactions requiring an EpiPen.

Nevertheless, food sensitivities can be incredibly uncomfortable and make life difficult to manage.

What Is Food Sensitivity?

While food sensitivity is a common condition, it is still not well understood. In short, it is a negative reaction to certain types of food that is likely due to elevated levels of antibodies that are reactive to said food.

One way food sensitivities differ from food allergies is that the symptoms can often be delayed for days after eating. This is why many food sensitivities often go undiagnosed – the latency of the symptoms means people don’t connect activity A with result B. Thus, the symptoms of, say, gluten sensitivity – which are vague – are often attributed to some other condition.

Symptoms of Food Sensitivity

The following symptoms manifesting one to three or more days after eating certain foods are a clear sign of a food sensitivity.

  • Fatigue
  • Unclear thinking / brain fog
  • Joint pain
  • Headaches/migraines
  • Eczema
  • Acne
  • Diarrhea
  • Runny nose
  • Anxiety, depression, mood swings
  • Insomnia
  • Dry and/or itchy skin

The Most Common Food Sensitivities

  • Dairy: Lactose intolerance is due to a lack of lactase enzymes, making it difficult to digest lactose. This causes problems with digestion resulting in bloating, abdominal pain, diarrhea, gas, and nausea.
  • Gluten: Wheat, rye, barley, and triticale all have proteins collectively called “gluten”. A gluten intolerance is the body’s inability to break down these proteins. Symptoms include abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea or constipation, fatigue, headaches, joint pain, rashes, mood swings, and anemia.
  • Caffeine: Some people have a genetic predisposition to caffeine intolerance, resulting in rapid heartbeat, anxiety, and insomnia they consume it.
  • Salicylates: These are natural chemicals found in plants used for protection against insects and diseases. They have anti-inflammatory properties. Those with sensitivity to salicylates experience sinus infections, stuffy nose, nasal and sinus polyps, hives, asthma, diarrhea, and gut inflammation.
  • Amines: There are many types of amines, but when it comes to food intolerances, histamines are the main culprit. Histamine typically helps with digestion, immunity, and the nervous system. However, those with a sensitivity to histamine experience hives, flushed skin, itching, headaches, stomach pain, diarrhea, and low blood pressure.
  • FODMAPs: These are carbohydrates found in many foods that can cause digestive problems for those intolerant to them. Symptoms include gas, diarrhea, bloating, constipation, and abdominal pain.
  • Sulfites: These are chemicals mainly used for food and drink preservation. Those sensitive to sulfites experience flushing, hypotension, diarrhea, skin swelling and hives, and coughing fits.
  • Fructose: A simple sugar found in many vegetables and fruits, fructose can cause many symptoms in those sensitive to it, including gas, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, bloating, abdominal pain, and acid reflux.

Food Sensitivity Testing

There are different ways of testing for food sensitivity. The goal of doing so is to customize one’s diet to avoid those foods that result in negative symptoms. If you believe you are experiencing symptoms resulting from food sensitivity, get tested as soon as possible.

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