Is Food Sensitivity Testing the Answer to Knowing What You’re Allergic To?

Food sensitivities are a very real problem for many people, with symptoms varying from person to person and ranging from mild to severe. And while nearly 32 million people have serious food allergies, it's likely that many more have a sensitivity, which is why food sensitivity testing has gained so much popularity. A food sensitivity is different from a food allergy in that it doesn't involve the immune system, so testing for a food sensitivity can be difficult.

Are food sensitivity tests actually reliable? Can they help diagnose your intolerance to certain foods? Let's find out the benefits and limitations of food sensitivity testing, and what these tests measure to determine the presence of food intolerance.

Learn more about conditions we treat: Allergies, Seasonal and Food

The right foods for your chemistry

Food is a powerful tool that can either support optimal health, or contribute to its decline. Unfortunately, there isn’t a one-size-fits all when it comes to the right foods for your individual chemistry. A diet that works for one person doesn't always suit the next—even when trying to address the same health problems. Many times, patients feel like multiple foods are responsible for causing symptoms, and are hopeful to seek testing that will provide definitive answers as to what foods they should avoid so they can start feeling better. 

If you're looking to improve your health by eating the right foods, it's helpful to have an inside look at how your body responds to your overall diet—including the foods that are considered healthy. This is valuable guidance toward making the right decisions with your diet.

Consult a professional: Nutrition Counseling at CentreSpringMD

Food sensitivity vs. food allergy

Food allergies and food sensitivities or intolerance are two different issues. Here's a quick breakdown:

Food allergies

Food allergies involve an immune response, and can cause the most serious, life-threatening, and immediate reactions. Symptoms are typically skin rashes, redness, hives, itching, swelling, or difficulty breathing. Some studies suggest that certain types of food allergies may be reversible, but there is no definitive proof that this is the case for every person, or every allergy (1).

Read more: Do Allergies Trigger Autoimmune Disease?

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Food sensitivities

These occur when your digestive system is irritated by particular foods, but symptoms don’t directly involve an immune response. Food intolerance symptoms can occur for various reasons and are more difficult to isolate. Additionally, some people may be able to eat small amounts of foods they’re sensitive to without experiencing noticeable symptoms, while other people may need to avoid their problem foods entirely. Food sensitivity symptoms are generally not life-threatening but can be just as debilitating, causing digestive distress, inflammation, migraines, or bloating.

Related: The Hidden Triggers of Autoimmune Disease

Symptoms of a food sensitivity

The symptoms of food sensitivities vary from person to person, and can be barely noticeable or downright debilitating. They include, but are not limited to:

  • Bloating and gas
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Skin rashes
  • Depression or anxiety
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Joint and muscle pain
  • Congestion in the sinuses or lungs

Symptoms can also vary depending on how much of the food was eaten and how reactive the individual is to it. Symptoms may also occur days after eating a food you are sensitive to, and the effects may last for longer.

Testing for Food Sensitivity

Needless to say, understanding your individual food reactivity is a key step in managing your overall health. There are many ways to uncover these food reactivities, one being through lab testing. And with more people becoming educated on the importance of health, at-home, do-it-yourself wellness has risen in popularity.

At-home sensitivity tests

After ordering, a kit containing supplies and detailed instructions is delivered to your home. Results are gained through blood analysis, which requires a finger prick to obtain a sample. These tests measure levels of a protein called IgG. These are antibodies to particular foods and can help determine which ones could be a potential culprit for your symptoms.

Food sensitivity testing in your doctor’s office

In-office tests are performed by your healthcare provider and involve drawing a blood sample for testing. These can look at other types of antibodies, such as IgE and IgA, in addition to IgG.

Learn more: Is Your Gut Healthy? How to Analyze Your Digestive Function

These can be a useful tool to shed light on your individual food sensitivities—no complicated elimination diet needed. But how accurate are they?

Most common food intolerances

The most common food sensitivities are dairy, gluten, egg, corn, soy, and peanuts.

Other potential culprits include tree nuts (almonds, cashews, walnuts etc.), fish, shellfish and nightshades such as potatoes and tomatoes. Tests can also uncover reactions to less common foods like honey or certain fruits and vegetables.

Are food sensitivity tests reliable?

Unfortunately, there is no single test that exists that can provide a definitive answer for the presence of a food sensitivity.

At-home food sensitivity tests do claim to be able to diagnose a food intolerance in a single test by measuring IgG antibodies. These types of tests are offered by various companies, and they analyze IgG levels to multiple foods (usually 90 to 100 foods). They claim that by removing these foods you should see an improvement in symptoms.  

However, the accuracy of a singular test like this has been questioned and best practice dictates the results should not be used as the sole basis to diagnose a food sensitivity. 

Food intolerance and sensitivity testing is one tool that may be useful to determine how well your diet is working for you. More often, if an at-home food sensitivity test shows multiple food reactions, this can be a sign that your immune system is overreacting and of overall poor gut health.

Related: Warning Signs of Chronic Inflammation

IgG may not indicate a food intolerance

At-home food sensitivity tests look for the presence of a protein called immunoglobulin G (IgG). These tests claim IgG indicate the presence of food sensitivity symptoms such as migraines, digestive discomfort, fatigue, and cognitive issues.

However, elevated IgG could also be a sign that your body is actually good at processing particular foods, and not having a negative reaction. Studies show the proteins measured in these tests are indeed part of the body’s natural responses to foods, and can be found in healthy adults & children (2). 

There hasn’t been any research to definitively show a correlation between IgG and symptoms of food intolerances. For this reason, medical organizations in the U.S. and Canada have recommended against using these types of food sensitivity or intolerance tests because there is no good evidence that they work (3). 

This does not mean there aren’t ways to test for food intolerances. For example, a hydrogen breath test can be used to detect lactose intolerance. The problem is with many of these at-home tests that claim to detect food sensitivities using only IgG. 

Benefits of working with a functional medicine provider to identify food sensitivities

The biggest benefit of working with a functional medicine provider to uncover food sensitivities is the ability to look at all aspects of your life, health history, and overall well being. A functional medicine provider can recommend other testing and diagnostics for a more comprehensive view of how your diet affects your health, which includes:

A qualified functional medicine doctor at CentreSpringMD will take into consideration not only the results from the lab testing but also other factors such as diet, lifestyle, stress levels, medications taken, etc. Additionally, we will be able to provide you with guidance and support as you transition into your new eating plan.

Some people may benefit from an elimination diet to more thoroughly examine how their body responds to various foods. This way, you can explore how foods make you feel by giving your gut time to heal, then slowly reintroducing potentially problematic foods for your gut one by one and watch for any symptom recurrence.

What to remember

Food sensitivities can cause a variety of uncomfortable symptoms that can have a negative impact on quality of life. Food sensitivities can be tricky to diagnose and manage, and lab testing is one tool to help shed light on how your body responds to your overall diet. However, working with a functional medicine provider is a much more reliable way to pinpoint which foods are causing your symptoms.

In the case of someone with multiple food sensitivities, keeping your immune system calm and balanced, and actively working on improving gut health is generally a good idea. By understanding how certain foods affect you, you’ll have the ability to make informed decisions about what you eat that will benefit your overall health.




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