By Dr. Joseph Mercola
with Rachael Droege
Food and chemical sensitivities are estimated to affect up to 50 percent of Americans. At times more subtle and difficult to spot than true "allergies," sensitivities cause a wide range of very individualized symptoms, from a foggy head to unexplained diarrhea, that can significantly decrease your quality of life.
Allergies and Sensitivities: What's the Difference?
Although the terms allergy and sensitivity are often used interchangeably, some sensitivities are not true allergies. This does not mean that they do not interfere with your life or shouldn't be addressed, however. Allergies occur when the immune system overreacts to environmental triggers, causing tissue inflammation, organ dysfunction and an array of other symptoms. Sensitivities may include true allergies, reactions that do not affect the immune system, and reactions for which the cause has yet to be determined.
Both allergies and sensitivities can invoke an immune system response, but allergies typically trigger immediate antibody reactions in the bloodstream whereas sensitivities trigger slower responses within cells. Another way to look at is while allergic reactions may be obvious and easy to track, such as sneezing or wheezing when you walk through a freshly mown lawn, sensitivities to foods and chemicals may be more subtle and persistent.
What Causes Food and Chemical Sensitivities?
Your body is a complex system that can easily be thrown out of balance by environmental influences like foods and chemicals. We are all under a constant barrage of potentially harmful chemicals and foods, and your body's ability to compensate and recover from this onslaught will determine whether you experience sensitivity symptoms.
For instance, most all of us are exposed to exhaust fumes, pesticides, paint or carpet vapors and other environmental chemicals, and many of us eat foods like sugar and grains despite being sensitive to them. As I said above, the symptoms may be subtle and you may not make the connection that your foggy head and fatigue is related to the bread you eat or the fumes you inhale while sitting in traffic unless you are aware that these substances might be playing a role.
What to do About It
Once you understand and suspect that chemicals and foods you're exposed to everyday may be decreasing your quality of life, it's time to do something about it. Here is a list of just some of the symptoms that may be related to a food or chemical sensitivity:
- Poor memory
- Foggy thinking
- Learning disorders
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Puffy, watery or itchy eyes
- Blurred vision
- Hearing loss
- Sore throat
- Iitching in the roof of the mouth
- Canker sores
- Chest pain
- Heart irregularities
- Sudden changes in blood pressure
- Nausea, vomiting
- Abdominal pains or cramps
- Chronic fatigue
- Swelling of the hands or feet
- Urinary frequency or urgency
- Vaginal itching
- Excessive hunger or binge eating
- Hyperactivity (ADD/ADHD)
- Emotional instability or hypersensitivity
- Panic attacks
- Aggressive behavior
This is only a partial list of possible symptoms. In the case of chemical sensitivities, symptoms are protean, meaning almost any symptom is possible, and food sensitivities can also cause a wide array of symptoms. This begs the question, how do you determine if a symptom is due to a food or chemical sensitivity or some other factor?
Finding a Food Sensitivity
The best way to find a food sensitivity is to keep a food diary. In the diary, list your actual dietary habits including time of ingestion, time any symptom is observed, cravings and improvement in symptoms. Make the recordings throughout the day, rather than waiting until the end of the day when it is easier to leave things out, and be sure to record everything you consume--even vitamins, beverages, chewing gum, etc.
After two weeks you can look for any recurring pattern among frequently eaten foods and symptoms. This can be difficult if you eat a lot of processed foods, as these often contain "hidden" ingredients like corn, milk, soy, wheat, yeast and artificial additivies that are often problematic. The most suspect foods will be those eaten daily or more than once a week, and, ironically, foods that you crave or eat during the night.
Then, stop the suspect foods one at a time for a minimum of five days. When you reintroduce the food or drink (on an empty stomach), you will be able to feel within an hour if it is problematic.
Finding a Chemical Sensitivity
The process is similar to a food sensitivity in that you need to keep track of your potential chemical exposures and subsequent symptoms. Chemicals can stay in the body for a lifetime, so past exposures could be responsible for your current symptoms. This is why with chemical exposures it's important to include past exposure as well.
The list of potential environmental chemical contacts at work, home, school and outdoors is seemingly endless. They can be related to toxic waste sites, basements, ventilation systems, industrial emissions, mold, bacteria, golfing (pesticides), painting, plastics, dentures, hearing aids--even jewelry. You can read Dr. Rapp's excellent book, Our Toxic World: A Wake Up Call, for a comprehensive description of environmental chemicals and how to minimize your exposure.
Tips to Resolve Your Symptoms
After you determine the main food or chemical triggers, you will want to avoid them as much as possible. Your symptoms will likely disappear or improve once you reduce your exposure to the problematic food or chemical. If you don't take measures to address food and chemical sensitivities, you can end up with permanent, long-term damage. Sensitivities result in constant and unnecessary stress on the immune system that will weaken it over time, possibly leading to chronic or degenerative disease.
In terms of food sensitivities, a comprehensive nutritional approach is extremely important, as most people's sensitiviites dramatically improve when they follow the nutrition plan. This includes avoiding sugar, fruit juices, most grains and pasteurized dairy products, which is nearly always helpful. Replacing commercial milk with raw milk from grass-fed cows is also usually well tolerated and highly health promoting.
Making certain that enough long-chain omega-3 fats (DHA and EPA) from krill oil is included in your diet is also helpful.
A high-quality probiotic may also help in controlling food sensitivities because it will improve digestion and the environment in your intestinal tract.
Chemical sensitivities can be somewhat harder to address given the prevalence of chemicals in our environment, and the lack of control we sometimes have over our exposure. It's possible to be exposed to chemicals without even knowing, and very small amounts can cause harm. Some of the most prevalent chemicals like pesticides, phthalates in plastics and PCBs can be avoided by:
Chemical sensitivity is a very real affliction, and those who suffer from it are not making their symptoms up, however, the causes of chemical sensitivity can extend beyond just the physical--there are often emotional traumas, sometimes not readily apparent to the sufferer, that have set the stage for the major disruptions in the detoxification and immune systems. In these cases, emotional treatments like the psychological acupressure method known as the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) can be extremely helpful.
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