Food Allergies and Sensitivities
You’ve probably heard that specific foods, like chocolate and aged cheese, can trigger migraine symptoms. Foods high in fat can spur headaches in some, while gluten, dairy, and even bananas cause symptoms in others. How could such a wide variety of seemingly innocent foods induce migraines? This question is exactly why dietary triggers are such a controversial topic in western medicine. Problematic foods are different for everyone, making them extremely hard to pin down.
Because there is no universal list of foods that cause migraines, it’s important to play an active role in your own health and discover which foods trigger your symptoms. The benefit of recognizing whether you experience sensitivities to certain foods is twofold; not only can eliminating inflammatory foods help you get to the underlying root cause of your migraine symptoms, but you’ll also learn how eating the right foods can actually heal your body.
The Difference Between Food Allergies and Sensitivities
Nearly everyone can remember a kid in his or her kindergarten classroom with a peanut allergy. While some children outgrow food allergies, many don’t. A food allergy is a serious and life-threatening condition that affects up to 15 million Americans, causing reactions that vary unpredictably from mild to severe. Along with peanuts, eggs, wheat, dairy, soy, corn, shellfish, and tree nuts make up the eight most common food allergens – but the possibilities don’t end there. Nearly any food can trigger the immune system to overreact, resulting in hives, itching, wheezing, dizziness, swelling of the face, or stomach pain.
A food sensitivity, or food intolerance, is not the same thing as a food allergy. While a food allergy involves an immune response, food sensitivity is related to the digestive system. A person with a food sensitivity may have an enzyme deficiency or react negatively to certain chemicals in foods, but the condition isn’t life-threatening. Symptoms of food sensitivity include moodiness, brain fog, fatigue, heartburn, joint pain, acne, bloating, and yes – headaches. It’s much more common for food sensitivity, not a food allergy, to trigger migraine symptoms.
Health Risks of Food Allergies and Sensitivities
There’s a good chance that if you have a food allergy – you already know about it. People with food allergies experience symptoms within minutes of ingesting a problematic food and the consequences can be severe. A food sensitivity, on the other hand, is trickier to detect because symptoms may not appear for hours or even days after eating. Aside from the short-term discomfort that accompanies food sensitivity, there are many health problems that can arise if left unchecked.
Continuously eating reactive foods causes inflammation in the intestinal tissue, which can lead to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and nutrient deficiencies. Research shows that additional long-term consequences of food sensitivities include eczema, psoriasis, migraines, chronic fatigue, metabolic syndrome, arthritis, and depression. And, because 70 percent of our immune cells live in the gut, untreated food sensitivities can weaken the immune system and leave us vulnerable to viral infections, allergies, and autoimmune diseases.
IgE and IgG Testing for Food Allergies and Sensitivities
Determining your food allergies and sensitivities is crucial for getting to the root cause of your migraine symptoms.
There are two different types of testing available: IgE and IgG. IgE testing measures the amount of antibodies in the blood, which is primarily associated with allergies. Higher amounts of IgE antibodies may be a sign that the immune system is overreacting to certain foods, thus revealing potential food allergies. Testing the blood for IgG antibodies, on the other hand, provides information on how much chronic inflammation certain foods cause upon consumption. IgG tests check anywhere from 55 to 184 different foods and show whether you have a high, moderate, or low sensitivity.
While testing for food allergies is pretty straightforward, experts disagree on how effective IgG testing is for food sensitivities. This makes it difficult to conclude how many people struggle with the condition. However, it is estimated that three in four people are sensitive to wheat, dairy, corn, soy, and other inflammatory foods. Even with sophisticated testing, determining whether you have a food sensitivity will require a bit of investigative work on your part.
Food Journaling and Eliminating Dietary Triggers
Keep a journal of your food and beverage intake to analyze any reactions to your diet. Describe each meal and snack in as much detail as possible including amounts, brand names, and cooking methods. Note your mental and physical symptoms. If you feel a migraine coming on within three days of eating a particular food and get migraines consistently on three separate occasions after eating that food, it may be a trigger. Eliminating the food from your diet may quiet your symptoms, but you probably won’t see results overnight. It takes three to four weeks of complete elimination before the immune system calms down enough for the body to begin healing itself.
Once you’ve identified your food sensitivities, go through your pantry and read product labels to check for problematic ingredients. The practice of searching for and avoiding your dietary triggers requires a bit of legwork upfront, but you’ll quickly establish a go-to list of reliable brands you can reach for at the store.
During this time of transition, it’s important to remember that accommodating your food allergies and sensitivities isn’t a diet based on deprivation – it’s a lifestyle change. Removing certain foods from your plate could mean reducing or even eliminating your migraine symptoms for a better quality of life.