Do you ever have stomach pain or mouth sores, but you don’t know the cause? It’s probably something you’ve eaten – perhaps not that very day – in fact, it could have been something you consumed up to four days before your symptoms began, which can make it a little hard to figure out! Food sensitivities are on the rise, and you or someone you know is probably affected, most likely within your own family.

Be aware that terms like allergy, sensitivity and intolerance are often used interchangeably, from a medical perspective, a true allergy is very different than intolerance. Allergies cause the body to produce a particular type of protein, an antibody, called IgE (immunoglobulin E, with the E meaning eosinophils, a type of white blood cell). These can be identified with a simple blood test, which results in a clear diagnosis. The problem with this approach is that a true IgE food allergy usually causes symptoms so immediate and so severe that the person responds right away and can often identify the offending food. These are the life-threatening reactions that are seen with allergies to foods such as nuts or shellfish (to only name two) – the ones that can cause anaphylactic shock or severe hives – the kind of thing most people figure out on their own after an exposure, early in life. These reactions are very rare, but quite severe, tend to worsen with each exposure and can be life threatening.

On the other hand, food “sensitivity” or “intolerance” can present with many different markers, some of them quite subtle. In testing for sensitivities, we look for IgG and/or IgA, two immunoglobulins that represent the body’s immune response in different ways. IgG is the main type of antibody found in the blood and represents about 84% of the total immunoglobulin proteins found in the body. This is the most common sensitivity testing done. IgA is found in mucous membranes, particularly in the lining of the intestines, and can be more specific to sensitivity responses found in those membranes.

Celiac disease is an example of a rare but severe food reaction that is caused by an auto-immune disease that develops in some people from exposure to gluten, a protein found primarily in wheat, barley and rye.

While celiac disease is rare, sensitivity to hybridized wheat is quite common in the U.S. and is the most common marker we see in testing. This is largely due to the overconsumption of refined wheat and the little-known fact that our country imports vital wheat gluten for use in most processed foods, giving these foods the satisfying “umami” taste that is one of the five basic flavors humans can perceive. Aggressive hybridization of American wheat began nearly a century ago to prevent the growth of smut, a toxic parasitic fungus that grows on stored wheat.

Symptoms of wheat sensitivity can vary significantly. In clinical practice, wheat sensitivity has gone up to number one on the list in the past ten years, dropping dairy products to number two, with chicken eggs now ranking third. It is not a coincidence that these are the most commonly consumed foods in America. The likelihood of developing a food sensitivity is directly correlated to the frequency of consumption of that food.

Wheat sensitivity can be also be caused by eating oxidized or rancid flour, which is almost impossible to avoid in commercial baked goods, particularly fast food, and many other foods that have wheat as an additive. Whole wheat kernels are fairly stable when harvested and stored properly, but once ground, the healthy oils in wheat can spoil quickly, so optimally, it should be kept in an airtight container and refrigerated or stored in a cool dark place, and then used within a few weeks. Commercial wheat and baked goods are not routinely handled in this manner.

Wheat sensitivity may cause variations of the same symptoms seen in celiac disease, such as chronic disease, rectal pain, brain fog, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue and lesions in the mouth and gut, but it doesn’t cause an auto-immune response. It is not known if wheat sensitivity leads to increased cancer risks. Again, healing requires abstinence from wheat and proper nutrition to provide nourishment of the gut’s mucous lining. Careful re-introduction of wheat into the diet may be possible once the initial inflammatory response has subsided. Naturopathic doctors are the known experts in treating gut dysfunction, so if these symptoms sound familiar, a visit with an N.D. may be in order.

Dr. Ellen Sauter is a naturopathic physician at The Benchmark Clinic in NW Portland. She specializes in chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, digestive disorders and balancing brain chemistry. She can be reached at 503-223-7067 or contact us here.