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Why Food Allergies May Be Making You Sick

Posted Sep 22 2008 11:06am 5 Comments

Could you be allergic to specific foods and not even know it?

Could a hidden allergic response to food be responsible for depression, ADHD, obesity, migraines, irritable bowel syndrome, joint pains, arthritis, and many other common conditions that resist treatment by conventional approaches?

Nowhere in medicine is there more controversy, superstition, confusion, and zealotry than there is surrounding the subject of food allergies and illness.

Conventional allergists and immunologists generally believe that the only connection between food and allergy is through what we call a Type 1 hypersensitivity, IgE mediated response.

That’s what happens when you eat a peanut, shrimp, or other allergen and get hives, asthma, or a swollen tongue. This type of reaction can be fatal and requires a shot of epinephrine to prevent you from dying.

I remember a little two-year-old boy with such an allergy who came to the emergency room when I practiced medicine in Idaho with a face so swollen that it was tight and white because of all the swelling. He almost died.

Scary indeed.

But that is not the type of allergy I am going to talk about here. I’m talking about the same allergy I have been talking about for years and trying to explain in my blogs. It is the type of allergy that makes you crave foods, gain weight, feel tired, and suffer “brain fog.”

It is also the type of allergy connected to many chronic diseases -- but mostly ignored by conventional medicine.

However, a growing body of research helps us understand this intimate relationship between the gut, food, and illness. (1, 2, 3)

I am talking about Type 2 delayed hypersensitivity or the IgG mediated response.

Certainly, conventional medicine has historically recognized that some foods cause harm, and most doctors have, at some point in their careers, recommended avoiding certain foods to treat common conditions.

Yet many of the recommendations embraced by conventional medicine -- from low-fat diets to prevent heart disease to bland diets to treat ulcers to low-salt diets to treat high blood pressure -- have now been relegated to the pile of unnecessary or harmful advice the medical profession once gave.

While conventional medicine once embraced ideas like these -- ideas that ultimately turned out to be relatively useless -- it has, ironically, resisted the concept that changing your diet can prevent disease and be used as a tool to treat illness, often with profound results in cases where no other good treatments exist.

The need to recognize the role of diet as THE most effective tool for the treatment in disease cannot be overstated. If I could pick only one “drug” to treat disease, I would choose food. Not only because it is safer than most pharmaceuticals, but also because it works faster and better than anything else on the market.

The place where we can most easily see the true power of food as medicine lies in the exact domain where current medical practice is weakest -- in the chronic immune, hormonal, and mood problems and degenerative diseases like cancer, heart disease, and dementia that afflict modern civilization in epidemic proportions.

One of the major contributing factors to many of these chronic illnesses are IgG food sensitivities.

People can become allergic to the foods they eat. When your gut is exposed to stress of any kind (from emotional stress to environmental toxins to the high level of antibiotics and other medications prescribed to so many people today) it is weakened.

Under continued stress your intestinal lining (which is only one-cell layer thick) can be damaged. In medicine we call this “increased intestinal permeability”. When this happens, undigested food particles actually leak through your gut lining into your body.

Just underneath this sensitive gut lining lies 60 percent of your immune system. It “sees” these undigested food particles as foreign molecules that could potentially hurt your system.

So it does what it is designed to do, it attacks them!

The result is that you become allergic to the foods you eat. You don’t develop the kind of allergy that could kill you (the IgE mediated response), but you can develop a seemingly more minor food sensitivity that causes a vast array of symptoms like weight gain, fatigue, brain fog, depression, and many others.

These are IgG food allergies. And they are rampant in today’s world.

Lately, I have been wondering why I see so many patients with these food allergies.

I think it is because we are eating food that stresses our bodies out!

==> The Stress of Our Food

While thoughts, beliefs, and perceptions can trigger a stress response, so can any physical or chemical insult. One of the biggest stress triggers can be the food we eat.

Most of us think of food as just calories. But new findings make it clear that what you put in your body is much more than just energy. The quality and type of food directly influences your genes and the stress response.

“Xenohormesis: The Attack of the Foreign Molecules in Food!”

In his movie “Supersize Me,” Morgan Spurlock ate three fast food meals a day for one month. Most of us recognize that eating a lot of fried, processed food, full of trans fat, high-fructose corn syrup, and calories will make us gain weight, promote heart disease and diabetes, and even give us fatty livers.

But what struck me the most was not that his cholesterol or blood sugar went up, but that his personality changed. He became aggressive, depressed, restless, and foggy and only felt “good” when he was eating the food. He became “addicted” to the food and felt “drugged.”

The explanation for this may be that our current food supply -- which is genetically modified or engineered, grown in depleted soils fertilized with petrochemicals, shipped in boxes across thousands of miles, and filled with antibiotic-, hormone-pumped livestock or farmed fish that is fed grain rather than the grasses or algae that are their native foods -- can send the wrong signals to our bodies. (4)

Our cells see these foods, which are a far cry from what we evolved to eat, as foreign. “What’s this?” our cells say, “Something foreign? Something dangerous? Let’s get in gear by activating the stress response.”

When the body’s stress response is activated by these “foreign” molecules in food it is called xenohormesis. The concept of xenohormesis (5) describes the effect of foreign molecules on our biology. They produce a stress response, triggering the whole cascade of stress-related cellular signals that makes us sick. Essentially, they create IgG food sensitivities like those I described above.

This causes obesity, illness, and brain dysfunction.

In fact, it appears there is a close connection between the obesity epidemic we are seeing, the growing problem of chronic illness, the epidemic of ADHD and behavior problems in children, and the increase in these food allergies. (6)

Not only do we need to think of the nutrients in our food, but we also need to think about the quality of our food.

Are there “stress” molecules in our food? What kind of information does the food we eat send to our bodies?

The old idea that food is simply a method for delivering energy in the form of calories is giving way to a new model of food -- food as information.

Our evolutionary adaptation to a particular diet (7) has perhaps set the conditions that alter gene expression patterns to trigger illness, rather than support health when our bodies are placed in the context of an evolutionarily unfamiliar landscape of nutrient-poor fast food, increasing sedentary behavior, and incessant stress.

RD Laing wrote, “Insanity is a sane response to an insane world.” (8) Maybe disease is a normal response to a diseased world -- and a toxic diet.

As a species, we evolved eating a complex, unrefined wild diet consisting of a wide variety of plant and animal foods rich in phytonutrients, fiber, and omega-3 fatty acids. Therefore our genes express themselves properly when we eat these foods, sending out messages of vital health.

Today, our unhealthy diet triggers different and diseased patterns of gene expression – one that leads to the epidemic of chronic illness we are now seeing.

The USDA reports that the top nine foods eaten by Americans are whole cow’s milk, 2 percent milk, processed American cheese, white bread, white flour, white rolls, refined sugar, colas, and ground beef.

All of these foods are foreign to our genome, which evolved on a Paleolithic diet.

This “mono diet” creates altered patterns of gene expression. This leads to disease, including food allergy or sensitivity. (9)

Dairy and gluten, for example, are two generally well-accepted food antigens responsible for a whole array of complex diseases, including autoimmune diseases, irritable bowel syndrome, colitis, hormone problems, and even neurologic and behavioral disorders. (10,11)

The bottom line is this ...

We have to develop a new framework for thinking about the relation of food, illness, and health.

==> Food is our greatest ally in helping to prevent and treat illness.

I have seen so many patients with chronic conditions get better with allergy elimination diets, including people with irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease, migraines, autoimmune diseases, chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, multiple chemical sensitivity, psoriasis, eczema, hives, arthritis, asthma, sinus problems, and even bed wetting.

We have to realize that food is both our worst enemy -- and greatest healer.

So try to do the following this summer:

    1. Eat a fresh, whole-foods diet.

    2. Try an allergy elimination diet: Get rid of gluten and dairy for two weeks and see how you feel.

    3. Try to eat only organic, unprocessed, local foods for a few weeks this summer.

    4. Try buying food from the farmers’ market, or your local community supported agriculture projects.

Taking these steps may not only help you lose weight, but make you feel dramatically better in ways you never expected.

Now I’d like to hear from you ...

Have you been told you have food allergies?

Which foods give you the most problems?

How has an allergy elimination diet affected your symptoms?

Please let me know your thoughts by leaving a comment.

To your good health,

Mark Hyman, M.D.

P.S. For more information on this and other blogs, please go to


(1) Lindqvist U, Rudsander A IgA. antibodies to gliadin and coeliac disease in psoriatic arthritis. Rheumatology (Oxford). 2002 Jan;41(1):31-37.

(2) Hafstrom I, Ringertz B, Spangberg A., A vegan diet free of gluten improves the signs and symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis: the effects on arthritis correlate with a reduction in antibodies to food antigens. Rheumatology (Oxford). 2001 Oct;40(10):1175-1179.

(3) Riordan AM, Rucker JT, Kirby GA, Hunter JO. Food intolerance and Crohn’s disease. Gut. 1994 Apr;35(4):571-572.

(4) Lamming DW, Wood JG, Sinclair DA.Small molecules that regulate lifespan: evidence for xenohormesis. Mol Microbiol. 2004 Aug;53(4):1003-9. Review.

(5) Yun AJ, Doux JD. Unhappy meal: how our need to detect stress may have shaped our preferences for taste. Med Hypotheses. 2007;69(4):746-51.

(6) Bazar KA, Yun AJ, Lee PY, Daniel SM, Doux JD. Obesity and ADHD may represent different manifestations of a common environmental oversampling syndrome: a model for revealing mechanistic overlap among cognitive, metabolic, and inflammatory disorders. Med Hypotheses. 2006;66(2):263-9. Review.

(7) Eaton SB, Eaton SB 3rd, Konner MJ. Paleolithic nutrition revisited: a twelve-year retrospective on its nature and implications, Eur J Clin Nutr. 1997 Apr;51(4):207-216.

(8) Laing R.D. The Divided Self – An Existential Study in Sanity & Madness. Pelican Books [1959 / 1965].

(9) Hunter JO, Food allergy – or enterometabolic disorder? Lancet. 1991 Aug 24;338(8765):495-496.

(10) Saukkonen T, Virtanen SM, Karppinen M. Significance of cow’s milk protein antibodies as risk factor for childhood IDDM: interactions with dietary cow’s milk intake and HLA-DQB1 genotype. Childhood Diabetes in Finland Study Group. Diabetologia. 1998 Jan;41(1):72-78.

(11) Farrell RJ, Kelly C Celiac Sprue, NEJM 2002 346 (3):180-188

Comments (5)
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I have been allergy tested in the past ("prick" test) with no positive results for allergies. After "accidentally" finding an apparent connection between joint and muscle pain and eating eggs, I went to a homeopath, who recommended IgG allergy testing. The egg allergy was confirmed, but I also learned I have an even more severe reaction to sunflower seeds/oil. Additionally, I am moderately reactive to kidney beans. At this time, I am still unsure how sunflower products affect me, but I suffer from both dysthymia and hypertension and hope I will finally find relief from either or both of these conditions after more time without these items in my diet.
My 9 year old daughter suffers from obesity, nasal allergies, fatigue and has very prominent allergy shiners. Since birth, she has rapidly gained weight. As a baby, she had eczema and to this day cannot use any soap when bathing. She has an intolerance to milk and I think she is allergic to our cat. (not sure about the dog). Her nose is always stuffed up and is always blowing mucus out. We have been to her pediatrician, allergist who did a skin test and even a pediatric endocrinologist. They have no answers. My other children do not have any of these ailments. I am tired of being told it is a lack of physical activity. I suspect it is food related. Something in her body isn't ticking right. We are going to see a naturopath. We'll see what happens. I will not quit until we get down to the bottom of this.
Food has been the bain of my existance for the past two to three years.  I started with repeated sinus infections (probably from a food allergy) and repeated doses of antibiotics. I actually had sinus surgery, which makes me mad now because my Ear Nose and Throat doctor didnt even test me for allergies before hand, and afterwards, only tested me for environmental allergens (Great, I am allergic to cats. I don't have a cat.) With the last dose of antibitotics, I could FEEL a change in my body. I had a cloudy head almost every time I ate, I NEVER felt well, and the sinus infections never really went away, even though I was on the antibiotics. I went to see a naturopathic doctor who tested me for IgG allergies and low and behold I am allergic to EVERYTHING (probabaly more from the anitbiotics than anything). I took probiotics for a year an a half and I did the best I could with an elimination diet, however I slowly started adding things back in. The only things I found I could not add in were gluten and sugar. I felt great for about a year being off these foods, but decided I was going to try to eat wheat again. That lasted a week and ended with me fainting in the middle of a Cracker Barrel (and I have never fainted in my life!). I am now suspecting that I have a celiac reaction to wheat (it didn't occur or at least become apparent until I started to eat it again) and I have not felt well since I had my week long wheat hiatus (about eight months ago), especially whenever I eat.  I know I need to go back to the doctor to see if my IgG levels have shifted to other foods (which it did after I took probiotics). Dunno what to do. I just feel done with this. Eating is such a hassle.
Tallgrrl here again, many months after being diagnosed with IgG allergies to eggs and sunflower seeds/oil. Without eggs in my diet, I have no joint or muscle pain whatsoever (and my joints have been at little "off" for as long as I can remember). And as for the sunflower oil, I have confirmed it was the cause of my depression issues all my life. I was also suffering from hypertension and edema, which are also both gone now that I avoid my allergens. I have gone from a size 22 to a size 16 without dieting, and my appetite has normalized. I wish IgG food allergies were taken more seriously by the mainstream medical community; an earlier diagnosis would have saved me from a lot of misery.
It is confirmed with an IgG test that my daughter can't tolerate gluten, dairy and tuna fish. Our family has been working hard to eliminate this completely from her diet. We are probably about 85% successful so far. (It can be hard at birthday parties, running on the go, etc.) The only issue, she seems to be hungry all of the time, now. I'm trying to add more fiber to her diet to see if it will curb her hunger. Poor kid!
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