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Food Sensitivities - What You Need to Know

Dr. Ashley Kowalski
6 October 2016

Food Sensitivities - What You Need to Know
by: Ashley Kowalski, HBSc, ND

Hampton Wellness Centre
1419 Carling Avenue Suite 209
Ottawa, ON K1Z 7L6

Food Sensitivities - What You Need to Know


Did you know many people are sensitive to foods without even knowing it? Some people experience severe discomfort with certain foods, while others experience minor symptoms relative to the amount of food consumed.[1] Food sensitivities can manifest in the body in a variety of different ways, such that two unique individuals will not necessarily experience the exact same symptoms. The good news is that food sensitivities do not have to be permanent.

What Causes Food Sensitivities?

There are various reasons why people react to certain foods. Here are a few key reasons:

Genetics play a role. For instance, consider celiac disease as a hypersensitivity of the small intestine to gluten, particularly gliadin, which is one protein component of gluten. For those with celiac disease, the absorptive surface of the small intestine is damaged upon exposure to gluten. These individuals feel their best when adopting a gluten-free diet.[2]

Environmental and lifestyle factors are also important to consider. Stress causes havoc in the digestive system,[3] leading to oxidation and damage to the structure and integrity of the intestinal tract. The digestive tract is complex and consists of an epithelial barrier, tight junctions, as well as a commensal flora of “good” bacteria. Stressors cause imbalance to this tightly regulated system, leading to a decline in the number of beneficial bacteria. Good bacteria are important for defending against pathogens, maintaining the immune system, and healthy weight management. Eliminating stress as much as possible, and learning effective techniques to help deal with it, will benefit your digestive system as well as positively impact your overall health and wellbeing. Meanwhile, the use of certain medications, such as antibiotics, can deplete the population of beneficial bacteria in the intestinal tract and lead to the development of food sensitivities.[4]

Diet is equally important—what we consume has a direct impact on the body. Many foods create inflammation within the body leading to unfavorable changes and damage to the structure of the intestinal tract. A few examples of inflammatory foods include sugar, dairy, and alcohol.[5] Adopting an anti-inflammatory diet can help preserve the health of the digestive tract.[6] See your naturopathic doctor to learn how to make these appropriate dietary changes.

What Happens Physiologically With Food Sensitivities?

Food sensitivities are likely to develop based upon genetic, environmental, lifestyle, and dietary factors. When the intestinal barrier becomes porous, undigested food particles pass through the barrier and enter directly into the bloodstream, eliciting an immune response. The immune response recruits inflammatory mediators, which cause inflammation within the tissues of the body.[1] The immune system also creates memory of the foreign invader, and so each time the food shows up again, the body continues to attack it. This is what leads to symptoms of food sensitivities.


This passage of food particles is also known as intestinal hyperpermeability, or “leaky gut”. Toxins and inflammatory mediators within the GI tract “leak” into other areas of the body, resulting in chronic disease and autoimmune conditions. Conditions resulting from leaky gut include inflammatory bowel disease, chronic fatigue syndrome, and different subtypes of arthritis.[7]

Signs and Symptoms of Food Sensitivities:

Common signs and symptoms of food sensitivities include eczema, bloating, abdominal pain/cramping, indigestion, irregular stools, joint pain, headaches, fatigue, brain fog, and mood swings, to name a few. People with food intolerances do not typically present with all of the above symptoms, but may only experience a select few.[1]

It is important to keep in mind that other health concerns can manifest with similar symptoms, and so it is recommended to go see a qualified health-care professional, such as a naturopathic doctor, in order to get to the root cause of your concern(s).

Pre-Menstrual Syndrome - A Naturopathic Approach How Do You Test for Food Sensitivities?

There are two common methods naturopathic doctors use to assess for food sensitivities and intolerances. The elimination diet is one method, and it involves eating an anti-inflammatory diet for a period of 3–4 weeks, then gradually reintroducing individual foods one at a time and monitoring how your body reacts to the food. On the other hand, food-sensitivity testing does not require immediate dietary changes; this test relies on the presence of food antigens and antibodies to reveal true positive test results. Dietary changes are discussed following test results.


Many individuals suffer from food sensitivities and intolerances; some people are not aware of what is causing their symptoms. Food-sensitivity testing may be warranted for you based on symptomatology. See your naturopathic doctor to learn more about food sensitivities and to see if testing is indicated. An appropriate treatment protocol will be derived based on your individual results, and will have you well on your way to healing the intestinal tract and minimizing sensitivities.