Food Sensitivity Series (PART 1)

Welcome to Dr. Meg’s 4-part series
The Science Behind Food Allergies and Sensitivities: The Why, The Science, The Differences, and The Testing.

  • Part 1 dives into why food allergies and sensitivities are becoming a bigger problem today and gives a brief scientific overview of our immune system and how it is connected to our gastrointestinal system.

  • Part 2 truly defines a food allergy versus a sensitivity and what to do about sensitivities.

  • Part 3 is all about the testing methods out there as options for determining food sensitivities.

  • Part 4 I wrap up the series with a case study of a 52-year-old female with an 8-year history of migraines, insomnia, and stomach cramping.

Part 1: Why Food Allergies and sensitivities Happen

Ever hear the phrase “you are what you eat?” It is a half-truth. 

The truth is you are what you absorb and inhabit

Some people can eat all different types of foods and never have any symptoms but some of us can feel like we have the flu when we eat certain foods. So, why is this happening? It all starts with a trauma or insult which causes our gastrointestinal system, which I call our inner skin, to swell and lose its integrity. 


What happens to your inner skin

I like to call our gastrointestinal system, from our mouth to our anus, our inner skin. Why? because that is exactly what it is. It is similar to our outer skin in that it protects us from the outside world and absorbs, as well as releases, things to help sustain life. Though these two body protective barriers are similar, they are built differently so let's talk about it.

epithelial lining picture.jpg

Our inner skin is made up of many complex layers but we are going to simplify and talk about one specific layer that is most impacted when we start to experience food intolerances and inflammation. Those peachy tall rectangles with fingers on top are our inner skin cells, also called epithelial cells, with little finger-like projections called villi on top. These are the important cells that determine what parts of the things we ingest we absorb and what we eliminate. Between these healthy cells on the left picture, we have what are called tight junctions. These tight junctions, as they suggest, are tight so all particles that pass have to go through a lot of breaking down to become very small for easy passage. When these tight junctions and inner skin cells are intact and healthy, our villi and cells are able to pick up, break down and absorb our foods properly that then go into our body for nourishment. On the right, we see what inflammation does to our gut lining. The image on the right has tight junctions that are no longer tight and we have damaged cells which are now allowing passages to those black burrs. Those black burrs represent large, undigested, food particles as well as viruses, bacteria, and parasites coming through our GI system. Our body begins to take in the larger and sometimes unwanted food particles we were never meant to absorb. When this happens, our immune system kicks into gear and begins the fight!

This is where the food intolerances and symptoms begin. 

Our immune system initiates a cascade that then produces inflammation because there are now many immune cells in this area trying to "fight an insult". When we get this swelling we also get loss of structural integrity and cell damage resulting in an inner skin that cannot tolerate and absorb foods the way it was intended to. Now our body is 'accidentally' (purposefully) identifying certain foods as an invader instead of healthy because it cannot break foods down into the appropriate particle sizes it recognizes to provide energy and nourishment.


Your Immune System and its parts

So, why do we even start talking about the immune system and foods? Well, our gastrointestinal and immune systems are more connected than we think. 78% of your immune system is in your gut. When we eat certain foods or drink certain drinks we are constantly leaving our bodies the decision to fight it or digest it. After we digest it we also then rely on our immune system to deal with it. When we eat something that it considers ‘bad’, we get symptoms, and when it is ‘good’ then it allows for proper digestion and absorption. 

We have both an innate immune system and an adaptive immune system and they are, as you guessed, connected! Our adaptive immune system involves antibodies, also called immunoglobulins, which contain antigen binding sites. Antigen binding sites are the very shape specific sites that are specific to a particular insult. An antigen is considered the insult our body is exposed to. An antigen is commonly a virus, bacteria, parasite, or allergen but also can be the food our body now recognizes as bad.



Adaptive Immune System

Here you will see a picture of what an IgG antibody looks like. Each antibody is unique as the antigen binding site is specific to something the immune system has fought off in the past. For example you get ill with the chickenpox virus. The first time you are exposed you go through the whole illness progression. During this first exposure, your body makes antibodies with an antigen binding site only specific for the chickenpox virus; lock and key style. You then get better and move on with life but these antibodies hang out in our immune system for many years in case there is re-exposure to the chickenpox virus. If you are exposed again to the chickenpox virus, you will now generally only experience mild to no symptoms because your body has these chickenpox specific antibodies that are ready to recognize the virus and fight it right away. A few types of immunoglobulins connected to food sensitivities include IgG, IgA, and even IgE which do the same as the below antibody but have different shapes.

Innate Immune System Image.jpg

innate immune system

Our innate immune system does not involve the individual antibodies, but rather white blood cells and their mediators. Our white blood cells make up a variety of cell types such as neutrophils, monocytes, eosinophils, mast cells, and various lymphocytes. If you have ever had a blood panel called a complete metabolic panel done, these are the things being measured and looked at. These guys are the first responders that come to the site of insult or injury and they release what are called mediators that then mediate the inflammation, the battle, and the cleanup process. The mediation process then brings in our adaptive immune system as well, and this is where our overlap occurs.

Why these things are happening

With this immune response and inflammation occurring, we begin experiencing symptoms. Some common symptoms include heartburn, indigestion, gas, abdominal distention and pains, fatigue, brain fog, mild flu-like symptoms, headaches, diarrhea or constipation, sinus congestion, or even insomnia and more full body inflammation. These are only a mild few symptoms that you can experience when your body reacts to a food it does not like and this is why we explore food intolerances, or sensitivities. Is the food the real reason we do not feel well or is it the stressor that initiated the cascade? Well, it is both. The food, or food additive, may be the cause of the symptoms but because it is put in your body frequently, it propagates everything due to the now poor inner skin integrity.

In today’s society, we do not do much to protect our bodies from harm.

We now introduce more and more heavy metals and chemicals into our water that we drink and the water we use to water our foods. We use harsh pesticides, herbicides, and insecticides, our bodies were never meant to battle. We continue to add more toxins into our environment that, yet again, our bodies were never meant to be exposed to. We hybridize foods that no longer contain the 20 or so nutrients it was meant to contain that are now being engineered to grow faster, bigger, and on only 4-5 nutrients required to grow therefore causing nutrient deficient foods. We also put our bodies through more emotional and sometimes physical stress with our workaholic schedules. When was the last time you actually took a real vacation to reset? 

Either way you look at it, our bodies are hitting their threshold and starting to fight back and not fight back the way that is conducive to feeling healthy and happy. 


Here to empower you with the knowledge of healthiness,

Dr. Meg

Next up is Part 2 where we dive into the definition of food allergies and sensitivities and what we to do about them.

Disclaimer: These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. There are no financial ties to any supplement companies, pharmaceutical companies, or to any of the products mentioned in this post. This post is not meant to treat, cure, prevent, or diagnose conditions or diseases and is meant for educational purposes. As always, please consult your doctor before trying any new treatments or supplements. 

Meghan Holpuch