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Food Sensitivities Can Be a Bummer for You and Your Skin—But There's Hope

Need to Know:

  • Food sensitivities are your gut’s reaction to food it can’t properly digest. Food allergies are a more serious immune response to foods it deems “invaders.”

  • Both sensitivities and allergies can cause skin inflammation, including acne, redness, dry skin, eczema, and psoriasis.

  • Sensitivities can develop in adulthood, especially when your digestive barrier is weak.

  • A sensitivity today doesn’t mean a lifetime of going without bread or garlic. Taking a break from the triggering food for several months while you focus on repairing your gut health can result in being able to add the tasty offender back into your diet without any problems.

In my late 20s, seemingly out of nowhere, I noticed that every time I ate something with garlic or onions in it, I ended up bloated and plagued by heartburn. As someone who loves Italian food and had previously added garlic to pretty much everything I cooked, this was a major disappointment.

But this culinary drama has a happy ending. I eventually discovered that the reason why I ended up developing a sensitivity to garlic was likely because I was eating a lot of it. Once I eliminated it for a few months and focused on healing my gut, I was able to eat it again in moderation without issue.

I called Veracity advisor Dr. Gabrielle Francis to help me unpack what causes food sensitivities like this, how they differ from food allergies, and how they may affect your skin.

First Things First: Food Sensitivities Are Real

You probably know a person who is sensitive to gluten or dairy without having an actual allergy. Or maybe you, like me, feel bloated after eating certain foods that you used to be able to enjoy without regret. 

Dr. Francis says that food sensitivities often develop later in life and can have reactions that occur anywhere from 20 minutes to 72 hours after eating. The root of these issues lies in the gut; they pop-up when your digestive system has trouble processing a certain type of food. This can happen in a variety of ways, for example when your digestive system struggles to adequately break down gluten, when you are deficient in an enzyme like lactase that’s needed to process the lactose in dairy, or because you have a genetic sensitivity to something like caffeine.

How Our Western Diet Contributes to Food Sensitivities:

“Gluten and dairy are the biggest allergens because they are very large proteins. If you have [leaky gut syndrome], it’s usually the large proteins making their way across the border wall that are the first things that the body sees as an invader,” Dr. Francis says. 

Not all wheat is created equal. In America, wheat has been genetically modified to be much higher in gluten in comparison to wheat grown in places like Italy. This increases its shelf life, but wheat high in gluten can also be harder to tolerate.

Similarly, the heating process involved in the pasteurization of cow’s milk kills bacteria, but also the enzyme that helps us digest milk. “With cheese and yogurt, they actually put the enzymes back in. So a person can have a problem with milk, but not necessarily with cheese and yogurt, Dr. Francis says.”

Because symptoms can take so long to develop, many people live with food sensitivities and may not realize what is triggering their discomfort. Symptoms themselves are also tricky and can manifest differently in different people. “Symptoms can be anything,” Dr. Francis says, including fatigue, brain fog, skin rashes, acne, headaches, muscle pain, gas, bloating, and diarrhea.

Breaking It Down: Food Sensitivities vs. Food Allergies 

As anyone who has followed the great gluten-free debate knows, there’s a difference between someone who feels uncomfortable after eating a certain food like garlic and someone who will go into anaphylactic shock if that same food enters their body.

True food allergies, according to Dr. Francis, are typically permanent. “They’re usually something you're born with because they can be inherited and they can be related to genetics. They can also be related to issues that the mother had while the baby was in utero,” she says.

While food sensitivities are caused by the gut’s reaction to a tasty morsel, food allergies are caused when the immune system is activated. The symptoms in the case of a full-blown allergy can be severe and immediate, include anaphylactic reactions, tingling, itching, or swelling. 

What Happens in Your Gut Can Show Up in Your Skin

Beyond rashes and acne, food sensitivities can show up in some surprising ways on the skin. “The skin is an organ of elimination,” Dr. Francis explains. “The body has to detox through the liver and through the gut and through the kidneys, and if those channels of detoxification aren't working properly, it'll move it out through the skin.”

Beyond being one of the body’s emergency exits, the skin also serves as a mirror for what is going on internally, especially when it comes to inflammation. Dr. Francis says this is especially apparent with food allergies, which provoke an immune system response in your body. 

According to Dr. Francis, food sensitivities and food allergies can show up in the skin in a myriad of ways ranging from acne, redness, dry skin, and dandruff to aggravating your eczema, psoriasis, and rosacea.

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So, What Can Cause a Sudden Sensitivity?

A common cause of food sensitivities, which are mediated by an antibody called IgG, is leaky gut, which Dr. Francis explains as a breakdown in the lining of the gut. “When that lining breaks down, that's like your border wall,” she says. “Things that you used to be fine with are now getting across into the bloodstream and the body sees that as a foreign invader. With leaky gut you'll start to have allergies and reactions to things that you were fine with before.”

She adds that another cause of food sensitivities is underlying gut infections like parasites, SIBO, and candida infections. A third cause is adrenal imbalances. “The adrenals are kind of the army of the body. If the army gets weak, it can't fight the wars.”

I’m Now Able to Eat Garlic Again—And You Can, Too

The good news is that food sensitivities usually will clear up if you address the underlying issue. In my case, my gut lining was compromised due to leaky gut syndrome during the same time that I was eating a lot of garlic. Even if your go-to food of choice is healthy, that’s often what you will develop a sensitivity to when your digestive barrier is not at its strongest.

You can determine what is causing the problem by doing a food sensitivity test with the help of an allergist. This involves being exposed to hundreds of foods and after which your doctor will rank your reaction as low, moderate, or high for sensitivity. Another option is to do an at-home elimination diet, where you stop eating all foods that could be triggers for your symptoms for 2-3 weeks. Then, you slowly reintroduce them one by one, allowing each a period of 2-3 days to show symptoms.

Once you pinpoint what is causing the issue, it’s time to go about fixing it. “My approach to it is to eliminate the foods for three months to kind of give your body a rest,” Dr. Francis says.  “At the same time, repair the leaky gut, clear out the infections and rebuild the adrenals. And then, after the three months of removal, you do a re-introduction of the foods that you are sensitive to; you can most likely re-introduce them without having a problem.”

She adds that the best way to restore gut health during the three month elimination is to eat whole, organic foods, cut out as much sugar as possible, and avoid foods with pesticides or added hormones, which can cause “hormonal activity” and make symptoms worse.

Like everything having to do with overall wellness, staving off and addressing food sensitivities is all about balance. You can prevent problems from developing by focusing on lifestyle changes that will support your digestive health. But if you do suddenly find that your favorite flavor bomb is causing you issues, rest assured: a sensitivity today doesn’t mean you’ll have to say goodbye to garlic forever.

Our Experts

Dr. Gabrielle Francis

Naturopathic Doctor, Chiropractor, Acupuncturist, and Licensed Massage therapist in NYC, and a medical advisor to Veracity.

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