What’s with all the Food Sensitivities?


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Unfortunately it seems like food sensitivities affect practically everyone these days. Back in the 90’s, I would hear about that one kid in class who had a peanut allergy. Nowadays, it seems like I hear about allergies of all kinds affecting all kinds of people! Gluten, dairy, soy, sugar, nuts, tree nuts, seeds, shellfish… you get the point.

First, It is important to understand what the difference between a food allergy, a food intolerance, and a food sensitivity is. Here is an awesome little diagram from The Global Autoimmune Institute.

diagram of allergies, intolerances, and food sensitivities

How to Know if you have an Allergy, Intolerance, or Food Sensitivities


A true food allergy will show up on a doctor’s prick test or other allergy tests. Usually one can discover if they have a food allergy quickly due to the often life-threatening nature of allergies. 32 million Americans, that is 1 in 10 adults and 1 in 13 children, have food allergies!

An intolerance or a sensitivity will likely not be found through an allergy test and must instead be discovered by general observation, symptoms, or short-term elimination/reintroduction diets (there are specific tests that can be run by functional medicine doctors to address sensitivities). Just because an intolerance or sensitivity is not showing on an allopathic doctor’s test does not mean those foods are not still wreaking havoc in the body, because they likely ARE. Sooner or later they will become apparent when stress or other pressures arise.


Generally an intolerance means that the individual doesn’t have what their body needs to digest or break down a given food. For example, lactose intolerance means that an individual may experience gas, diarrhea, bloating, or cramping due to a lack of an essential enzyme, called lactase in their gut, whenever they eat dairy products (milk, butter, cheese, yogurt etc). Generally, intolerances can generally be addressed by providing the body with those enzymes that are lacking, such as lactase pills or digestive enzymes. But the best way to avoid intolerance symptoms is to avoid the foods altogether when possible. Consult a holistic nutritionist or health care provider because there may be additional types of enzymes to address specific issues you may have, including DAO enzymes for histamine intolerance.

Food Sensitivities

A food sensitivity may take a bit longer to discover because the symptoms can vary greatly in addition to how quickly someone may experience those symptoms. Sensitivities provoke an immune reaction which can cause a range of symptoms, such brain fog, bloating, joint and muscle pain, headaches, skin problems, psychological problems, and any number of other issues. Thankfully, sensitivities can be reversed, and when given the right tools, the gut can heal itself so that the individual will be able to potentially enjoy those foods again.

Let’s discuss two common conditions related to food sensitivities: Non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) and Migraines.

Non-celiac Gluten Sensitivity (NCGS)

If an individual has tested negative for celiac disease with their doctor or health care provider but are still experiencing some or all of these symptoms, then it may be likely that the individual does in fact have a sensitivity to gluten, but it is not an allergy as discussed above. Up to one in 20 Americans may have non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS), which can affect the brain, skin, endocrine system, stomach, liver, blood vessels, and more.

NCGS can produce a wide range of symptoms:

  • Bloating
  • Abdominal pain
  • Gas and related pain
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Tiredness
  • Headache
  • Anxiety
  • Foggy mind
  • Eczema
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Joint and muscle pain
  • Asthma
  • Depression

In order to reduce further gut damage and/or systemic inflammation, it is important that the individual seek out whether or not non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) may be the cause of their symptoms. The individual can discover if they have NCGS by doing an elimination diet, eliminating all gluten/wheat products for 3-6 weeks. After that time, they may reintroduce gluten or wheat products for 3 days to see if their body feels any negative symptoms such as fatigue, brain fog, joint pain, or headaches over the course of a few days. If symptoms return, then it’s time to cut out gluten and wheat products for a more extended period of time, and to contact a holistic nutritionist or health care provider who can seek out other potential food sensitivities or intolerances, additional root causes of GI discomfort, or systemic inflammation related to your bioindividual needs. Additional options are to get food sensitivity testing through a holistic nutritionist who can further support you.


Migraines have genetic, hormonal, immune, and environmental components (Lipski, 2020). There is a growing body of research that show links between dietary and lifestyle triggers/sensitivities and migraines.

Food-Related Sensitivities for Migraines

In a study from Dr. Munro of 282 patients, 100% of migraine patients had food allergies or sensitivities; more than 200 were sensitive to wheat and/or dairy products. Interestingly, more common foods eaten daily provoked more reactions than the typical “migraine” foods like chocolate, alcohol, and cheese.

Specific Studies on Migraine Food Re-introductions

Two additional studies on migraines in adults and in children showed that the following foods, when reintroduced, triggered migraines in the following percentage of patients:

  • Wheat products (78%)
  • Oranges (65%)
  • Goat’s Milk (75%)
  • Eggs (45%)
  • Cow’s Milk (37% adults, 31% children)
  • Tea (40%)
  • Coffee (40%)
  • Beef (35%)
  • Chocolate (37%)
  • Corn (33%)
  • Sugar (33%)
  • Yeast (33%)
  • Benzoic Acid (16%)
  • Rye (14%)
  • Pork (10%)
  • Fish (10%)
  • Oats (7%)
  • Other food-related triggers include:
  • High salt diet
  • Red wine
  • Caffeine
  • Oils
  • MSG
  • Artificial sweeteners
  • Cheese
  • Tomato
  • Soy products (tempeh, tofu, soy sauce)
  • Non-Food Related Migraine Triggers A study of 494 people found the following triggers for migraines:
  • Stress (62%)
  • Weather Changes (43%)
  • Missing a meal (40%)
  • Bright sunlight (38%)
  • Cigarettes, Perfume, Sexual Activity in some.
  • Exhaustion (car)
  • Tobacco
  • Birth Control pills
  • Eregotamine (drug to treat migraines)
  • Fragranced candles
  • Blood sugar imbalances
  • Hairspray
  • Mold from indoor house plants
  • Household cleaners

Improvement Rates on Migraine Elimination Diets

In one study conducted on 78 children, 88.6% of children improved completely when placed on an elimination diet. Additionally, in a study conducted on 60 adults, headaches dropped 85% in addition to a quarter of people with hypertension who normalized their hypertension completely through limiting the above foods (Lipski, 2020). Discuss the right elimination diet for you with your care provider by focusing on a whole foods, nutrient dense, plant-rich diet.


For the most part, food sensitivities will likely be frustrating because they may make someone feel isolated, confused about options at a party or restaurant. Likewise, it may require a lot of planning ahead when eating out. However, food sensitivities can often be an indicator for much deeper issues going in throughout our bodies. Instead of waiting until more serious diseases develop (like diabetes, autoimmune diseases, or cardiovascular issues), listening to one’s body in the early stages of health can prevent and reverse disease before it worsens. Thankfully, there are always solutions that can help to reduce symptoms and manage health concerns. For this purpose, working with a certified holistic nutritionist is imperative to have a clear direction forward if food sensitivities are concerning you. What we are and how we feel starts in the gut!


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