What are food sensitivities? How do food sensitivities affect eczema? And, what steps can you take to identify your food sensitivities & start healing today?
Food sensitivities are very real and play a significant role in autoimmune conditions, like eczema.1,2,3
In my practice, I see a lot of food sensitivities. Especially in people struggling with inflamed skin. Unfortunately, many practitioners fail to make the connection between food sensitivities and eczema symptoms. As a result, many women are left feeling like they have tried everything, and just can’t seem to get their painful itchy skin under control.
When you think about it, this actually makes a lot of sense. If the foods you are eating are constantly causing inflammation in your body, then your body never really gets a chance to heal. In my experience, failure to identify and address food sensitivities is one of the most common roadblocks to healing eczema.
It’s possible that identifying food sensitivities could be the missing puzzle piece that you need in order to fully address the root cause of your symptoms. I am happy to share some useful information with you that can support you on this journey.
Let’s dig in.
What Are Food Sensitivities and How Do They Develop?
Just to be clear, there are several ways that your body can negatively respond to a food, and I think it’s worth noting the major differences in these responses.
- Food Intolerance: You could be intolerant to a certain food. A food intolerance is more of a mechanical issue; meaning that your body has difficulty or lacks the ability to digest that food. A common example is lactose intolerance. People who are lactose intolerant lack the enzyme lactase which is needed to break-down the milk sugar lactose. The immune system is not involved in this kind of food reaction.
- Food Allergy: True food allergies involve a response from the immune system. People usually know if they have a food allergy because the effects are immediate, and can be life threatening. Symptoms like hives, mouth swelling, and/or difficulty breathing usually arise as soon as someone eats a food they are allergic to.4
- Food sensitivity. Food sensitivities develop as a result of intestinal permeability.5,6 Symptoms can take longer to show up (up to 72 hours after eating) after eating a food you are sensitive to. I talk more about intestinal permeability and how it relates specifically to eczema & food sensitivities in this blog post: What Causes Eczema? In short, intestinal permeability causes our immune systems to respond inappropriately to the foods we are eating. Unfortunately, these sensitivities can develop with any food, and are usually the foods we eat most often. Food sensitivity reactions are caused by a different type of immune system protein than true food allergies. If you think of your immune system as a group of soldiers designed to protect you, the soldiers that respond to an allergy are like the Marine Corps, and those who respond to food sensitivities are more like the National Guard. Food sensitivities are not immediately life-threatening, but do contribute to inflammation in our bodies and on our skin.
Are Food Sensitivities Permanent?
In my experience, food sensitivities are not always permanent. This is usually very exciting news to my clients who have been struggling with a long list of foods they need to avoid!
Some food sensitivities are more likely to be permanent than others. Sensitivities to dairy, for example, tend to be long lasting, but that’s not to say they always last forever! Dairy foods (especially cow’s milk) are surprisingly complex. They contain a variety of different protein molecules our bodies can become sensitive to.7 It can sometimes take years to heal someones’ gut to the point that they can fully tolerate cow’s dairy, and some people may never get there.
That being said, it is possible to heal food sensitivities within 3-6 months, depending on the level of damage in your gut. I think it’s also important to note here that the longer you have been sick and dealing with food sensitivities, the longer it takes to heal. It’s different for each person.
The 4 Steps to Healing Food Sensitivities:
In general, I take a 4-Step approach when it comes to healing food sensitivities with my clients.
- Identify your specific sensitivities.
- Avoid those food sensitivities.
- Focus on repairing intestinal permeability (aka Leaky Gut; if you’re interested in more information about how leaky gut develops, here is another good article).
- Reintroduction of these foods (slowly and strategically).
In this post, we are focusing on steps 1 & 2. In an upcoming blog post, we will chat in detail about Strategies to Heal Leaky Gut Naturally (Step 3).
Strategies to Identify Your Food Sensitivities
#1: Test Don’t Guess.
The number one strategy for identifying your food sensitivities is to have a food sensitivity test done. That way there is little question about what your body is reacting to. It’s important to note that not all food sensitivity tests are created equal.
The food sensitivity test that I prefer and use for myself and with my clients is the Mediator Release Test (aka the MRT). As the name implies, the test looks at mediators in the inflammation process. Inflammatory mediators are chemicals released by our white blood cells that cause the symptoms of inflammation (i.e. histamine and prostaglandins to name a couple). This test measures the changes in the volume of these chemicals before and after exposure to 170 different foods.
Most food sensitivity tests work by looking for specific proteins (called antibodies) involved in the inflammatory process. The issue with these tests is that they only see reactions that cause antibodies to develop. And, not all food sensitivities do that.
In my opinion, it’s best (and more accurate) to use a test that looks at the inflammatory mediators that are actually causing your symptoms. It gives us a more complete picture of how your body is reacting to various foods.
#2: Eliminate and Reintroduce.
The second way to identify food sensitivities is to go through an elimination diet and then slowly reintroduce one food at a time, making note of any possible reactions.
This process is challenging because, like I mentioned before, food sensitivities can develop to any food. Including the stuff we wouldn’t really think of as being inflammatory, like kale or avocados.
But, working through an elimination diet and tracking your response as you reintroduce foods can provide you some information about which foods your body is reacting to.
If you have never considered how different foods are impacting the inflammation in your body, I think an elimination diet is a good (and less costly) place to start.
Steps for Completing an Elimination Diet
- At minimum eliminate all processed foods, grains, and refined sugars for three weeks.
- Slowly reintroduce foods one at a time, with at least 72 hours in between.
- Document any reactions you have.
When going through an elimination diet I recommend eating only whole foods in their whole form for 3 weeks. High-quality meat, vegetables, and some fruit (ideally low sugar options like berries). Avoid caffeine and alcohol. This is just for 3 weeks. It’s temporary. And, it gives your body some space from the foods that are most likely contributing to inflammation.
Foods that people are often sensitive to: nightshades (tomatoes, bell peppers, white potatoes), eggs or egg whites, gluten, and dairy (especially cow’s dairy).
When it comes to reintroducing foods, you want to introduce one whole food at a time. For example, reintroducing bananas is very different from reintroducing banana bread which can have 13 + ingredients. If you tested banana bread in this process and had a reaction, it would be next to impossible to know which ingredient in the banana bread you were reacting to.
So, one whole food at a time is best.
I also recommend waiting 72 hours between each food reintroduction OR waiting until your symptoms of inflammation from the last food have completely resolved.
For example, if you reintroduce a banana on Monday and have no apparent reaction, wait until at least Thursday to try reintroducing cheddar cheese. On the other hand, if you do seem to react to the banana (say your eczema flared) wait until the symptoms of inflammation have resolved before testing the cheddar cheese.
Follow this process for each food you want to test.
How Do You Know if You’re Reacting to a Food?
Common symptoms of food sensitivities: skin rashes/eczema flares, increased pain or joint stiffness, diarrhea, nausea, headaches, low energy, gas, abdominal cramps, bloating, nervousness or anxiety.
I recommend keeping a food journal like this one during this process. This will help you keep track of when your symptoms occur and which foods may be causing a reaction for you.
Just remember, using an elimination diet to identify food sensitivities isn’t as useful as actually running a high-quality food sensitivity test. If you follow these steps and don’t notice any improvement in your symptoms or they get worse, it’s likely that you’re reacting to something you’re still eating. If you find yourself in this scenario, I highly recommend a consultation with a functional practitioner. Click here to schedule a free call with me.
Now that you have identified your food sensitivities, it’s time to give your body a break to allow space for healing. The amount of time you will need to avoid these foods will vary. It’s not a clear cut picture. Unless you are working through an intensive gut healing protocol with a qualified practitioner, I recommend avoiding these trigger foods for at least 6 months while you focus on healing. From there, you can start testing foods to see if you’re still having a reaction.
To support your body in this healing process, you will need to focus on healing your gut. We will dive into this in more detail in an upcoming blog post, but I don’t want to leave you empty handed, so…
Here are 5 quick tips to start supporting your gut health today:
- Avoid processed foods as much as possible. Keep it simple with high quality protein, vegetables, and fruits. Avoid the center isles of the grocery store (this is where all of the processed food is kept) as much as possible.
- Start each meal with a cup of homemade bone broth, or purchase high-quality bone broth at the store. The proteins in real bone broth are incredibly healing to our digestive systems.8,9,10
- Purchase organic when you can. Pesticides (i.e. glyphosate) and synthetic fertilizers used in farming can wreak havoc on our guts.11,12 Best to avoid these as much as possible. Check out The Environmental Working Groups’ Clean 15 and Dirty Dozen lists for some guidance on which foods to prioritize when it comes to choosing organic. Prioritizing will help you save some cash!
- Support proper digestion by using digestive bitters 5-10 minutes before you eat. Here is my favorite brand (alcohol free). Or, simply mix a tablespoon of organic apple cider vinegar in about 4 oz of water.
- Challenge yourself to eat a wide variety of foods (while still avoiding your sensitivities). The more we expose our leaky guts to a food, the more opportunity our immune system has to develop a sensitivity to it. Choosing a variety of nourishing foods is essential to healing. This does NOT mean you can never eat leftovers. But, it does mean changing up your protein and other food choices every couple of days and trying new things is an important part of the process. Plus, it can be really fun to experiment!
I hope that this has provided you with the information that you need to start working towards clear skin and kicking your eczema, for good.
Looking forward to chatting soon,
- Coucke F. Food intolerance in patients with manifest autoimmunity. Observational study. Autoimmun Rev. 2018 Nov;17(11):1078-1080. doi: 10.1016/j.autrev.2018.05.011. Epub 2018 Sep 11. PMID: 30213697.
- Khan F, Granville N, Malkani R, Chathampally Y. Health-Related Quality of Life Improvements in Systemic Lupus Erythematosus Derived from a Digital Therapeutic Plus Tele-Health Coaching Intervention: Randomized Controlled Pilot Trial. J Med Internet Res. 2020 Oct 20;22(10):e23868. doi: 10.2196/23868. PMID: 33079070; PMCID: PMC7609202.
- Tham EH, Leung DY. Mechanisms by Which Atopic Dermatitis Predisposes to Food Allergy and the Atopic March. Allergy Asthma Immunol Res. 2019;11(1):4-15. doi:10.4168/aair.2019.11.1.4
- Food Allergies: Causes, Symptoms & Treatment. December 18, 2020. Retrieved from https://acaai.org/allergies/types/food-allergy.
- Perrier C, Corthésy B. Gut permeability and food allergies. Clin Exp Allergy. 2011 Jan;41(1):20-8. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2222.2010.03639.x. Epub 2010 Nov 11. PMID: 21070397.
- Samadi N, Klems M, Untersmayr E. The role of gastrointestinal permeability in food allergy. Ann Allergy Asthma Immunol. 2018 Aug;121(2):168-173. doi: 10.1016/j.anai.2018.05.010. Epub 2018 May 25. PMID: 29803708.
- Milk Facts. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.milkfacts.info/Milk%20Composition/Protein.htm#:~:text=In%20cow’s%20milk%2C%20approximately%2082,genetic%20variations%2C%20and%20functional%20properties.
- Scaldaferri F, Lopetuso LR, Petito V, Cufino V, Bilotta M, Arena V, Stigliano E, Maulucci G, Papi M, Emiliana CM, Poscia A, Franceschi F, Delogu G, Sanguinetti M, Spirito MD, Sgambato A, Gasbarrini A. Gelatin tannate ameliorates acute colitis in mice by reinforcing mucus layer and modulating gut microbiota composition: Emerging role for ‘gut barrier protectors’ in IBD? United European Gastroenterol J. 2014 Apr;2(2):113-22. doi: 10.1177/2050640614520867. PMID: 24918016; PMCID: PMC4040816.
- Tariq M, Al Moutaery AR. Studies on the antisecretory, gastric anti-ulcer and cytoprotective properties of glycine. Research Communications in Molecular Pathology and Pharmacology. 1997 Aug;97(2):185-198.
- Wang, B., Wu, G., Zhou, Z. et al. Glutamine and intestinal barrier function. Amino Acids 47, 2143–2154 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00726-014-1773-4
- Liang, Y., Zhan, J., Liu, D. et al. Organophosphorus pesticide chlorpyrifos intake promotes obesity and insulin resistance through impacting gut and gut microbiota. Microbiome 7, 19 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40168-019-0635-4
- Samsel A, Seneff S. Glyphosate, pathways to modern diseases II: Celiac sprue and gluten intolerance. Interdiscip Toxicol. 2013 Dec;6(4):159-84. doi: 10.2478/intox-2013-0026. PMID: 24678255; PMCID: PMC3945755.