In Autoimmune Conditions, Functional Medicine, Natural Health & Lifestyle

You’ve heard the saying, “One man’s food is another man’s poison.” In those with autoimmune disease this couldn’t be more true. The foods you eat heavily influence how you feel everyday — but it’s often hard to know which foods your body doesn’t react to and what foods your body needs to heal.

Identifying your food sensitivities may play a key role in helping you find answers so you can gain that new chance at life you’ve been craving.

The relationship between food sensitivities and autoimmune disease is still a “new” phenomena which is why conventional healthcare providers don’t routinely address this issue. However, it’s one of the main contributors to how you feel everyday.

Food is medicine and if you’re eating foods that are harming your body, you’ll be fighting an uphill battle when it comes to feeling your best.

If you struggle with an autoimmune disease, identifying your food sensitivities and removing them from your diet, may help you get back on the road to better health. Here’s what you need to know.


Fact #1: Food sensitivities aren’t the same as allergies or intolerances.

These terms are often used interchangeably but they’re not the same thing. Your body reacts differently if you are sensitive, allergic or intolerant to a food.

A food allergy triggers an immune response. Symptoms can be mild or lead to a severe life-threatening anaphylactic reaction. Approximately 4% of adults in the US have food allergies. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) these eight foods account for 90% of food allergies in the US: peanuts, milk, eggs, tree nuts, soy, wheat, fish, and shellfish. Symptoms usually appear shortly after the food has been consumed.

A food intolerance is the only food reaction that doesn’t involve the immune system. If you have an intolerance, your body is missing the enzyme it needs to properly digest a food. The most common food intolerance is lactose intolerance. If you have this condition, your body doesn’t make enough lactase (the enzyme that breaks down the lactose found in milk so you can digest it properly). It may be possible to replace the missing enzyme via supplementation. Food intolerances are permanent.

Food sensitivities elicit a specific “antibody-mediated” immune response that differs from a food allergy. In other words, your immune system will create an antibody against the specific food you’re sensitive to. They can be difficult to diagnose as symptoms are often delayed until two to three days after the food was consumed. Reactions can vary dramatically even when consuming the same food. The can and do change over time depending on your stress levels and the overall health of your body (especially your digestive tract).


Fact #2: Symptoms of food sensitivities aren’t always digestive related.

Most people assume that symptoms of food sensitivities are related to the digestive system such as acid reflux (GERD), gas, bloating, cramping, diarrhea or constipation. But that isn’t always the case.

It’s even more common to have symptoms outside of the digestive tract and in every system of the body. Common symptoms include: fatigue, sleep disturbance, hormone disruption, mood disorders, anxiety, depression, headaches/migraines, joint pain, allergies/asthma, acne and weight issues. Any of these symptoms sound familiar?

With autoimmune disorders, there’s often a connection between food sensitivities, your symptoms and your antibody levels. For example, if you have Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, there’s a strong correlation between gluten sensitivity and your symptoms. Often, when people remove gluten from their diet, their thyroid functions better, their antibody levels go down, and their energy increases.


Fact #3: Symptoms of food sensitivities can be delayed.

Food sensitivities can be hard to identify because the symptoms may not show up until two to three days after the food is consumed. How frustrating is that? If you have a migraine today, it’s hard to remember what you ate the last 2-3 days let alone figure out which of those foods may have been the trigger.

This is why you may overlook foods as the trigger for your symptoms. Even if you’re suspicious that foods are contributing to how you feel, it’s not always easy to go back and discover which ones they are — especially if there is more than one offending food.

And, if you eat the food every day, you may always feel symptoms (like daily fatigue or brain fog) but not necessarily correlate them with the foods you eat.

This is why a diet diary can be very helpful for some people. If you write down everything you eat, you can sometimes start to track symptoms and correlate them with foods.


Fact #4: There are several ways to find out if you have food sensitivities.

A blood test and/or an elimination diet are the most common ways to discover if you have food sensitivities.

A blood test is a simple way to diagnose sensitivities but there are limitations with this test:

  1. Not all foods are tested. On average, the different labs will have panels ranging from 75 to 300 foods. These may or may not be the foods you commonly eat.
  2. You must be eating the food in significant quantities to get an accurate result.
  3. A negative result does not necessarily rule out the food.
  4. Insurance usually doesn’t cover the cost of these tests. The out-of-pocket expense can be anywhere from $150-$750 depending on which lab you choose and how many foods you test.
  5. You may get false positives if you have a leaky gut and/or severe digestive symptoms.

An elimination diet is another way to discover what your potential sensitivities are but it may require several months of eating a fairly strict and regimented diet. This can be very challenging to say the least.

The most common way to do an elimination diet is to remove the top triggers from your diet (corn, dairy, gluten, eggs, nuts, and soy) and see if your symptoms improve. If they improve, re-introduce one food at a time (every few days) back into your diet and notice if symptoms return.

Talk to your functional medicine healthcare provider about what the best approach is for helping you identify your food sensitivities. Depending on your symptoms, your current diet, and your gut health one of these may be a better option for you.


Fact #5 : A negative test doesn’t necessarily rule out food sensitivities.

This is one of the most frustrating things about food sensitivity testing. If you get a negative test result to a food — you STILL may have a sensitivity to that food. Here’s why.

You must be eating a food in significant quantities for the test to come back accurate. For example, if you haven’t eaten strawberries for several months, the blood test may show that you’re not sensitive to strawberries when, in fact, you may be sensitive.

With the blood test, a food that produces a negative result can still create a reaction in the body. And a food that comes back positive may have little effect on symptoms. In other words, the blood test results may not clearly correlate with your symptoms. Again, this can be particularly frustrating.

Food sensitivities can change over time. So a negative result today may not necessarily mean that a food will never create issues in your body.

It’s important to work with a functional medicine healthcare provider that understands the limitations of blood testing and can correlate the results with your symptoms.


Fact #6: Food sensitivities can be overcome.

The good news is that you’re not necessarily destined to have these food sensitivities forever. When the offending foods are removed from your diet and your body is given time to heal you may no longer react to the same foods. Or, your reactions may not be as severe as they were before.

At first, making changes can be difficult. It takes time, diligence, and discipline. But when you discover how good you can feel when you eliminate the offending foods it becomes easier.

Work with a functional medicine healthcare provider that is trained specifically in helping those with food sensitivities. It’ll make the journey much easier and you’ll feel very supported along the way.


Fact #7: Scientific research can be inconclusive for food sensitivities.

The study of food sensitivities and it’s role in autoimmune disease is a newer area of research.

Scientific evidence suggests that food sensitivities may or may not contribute to autoimmune disease. This is partly why some healthcare providers overlook or downplay the significance foods play in the autoimmune process.

Because of genetic diversity, two people with the same autoimmune disease may or may not be affected by the same foods. In other words, the same foods may elicit completely different reactions in two different people.

In my clinical experience, food sensitivities always contribute to the symptoms of autoimmune disease. Work with a functional medicine healthcare provider who can help you identify and heal from your food sensitivities.



Has your health been impacted by food sensitivities? I’d love to hear your story in the comments below.


Would you like to learn more about functional medicine and how it can help you heal? Check out my FREE 10-Day Email Series, What You Need to Know About Autoimmune Conditions, you’ll learn:

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Showing 3 comments
  • Crystal

    After suffering for 10 years and being in the last stage of hidradenitis suppurativa, I have found remission from the horrible condition by discovering I had food sensitivities/triggers. I am sensitive to nightshade vegetables, coconut (including palm oil) and nuts! I have to be very strict with my diet and watch all ingredients because the smallest amount of these foods bring out my HS!

  • Kim West

    Great distinction between intolerances, sensitive and allergies, thanks!