If you’ve tried EVERYTHING to relieve your migraine symptoms and nothing has worked very well, it’s time to stop looking at your head and start looking at your gut! Read on to find out what a food sensitivity is, how it differs from food intolerances, food allergies, and food triggers, and how to know if you might have a food sensitivity.
What Is A Food Sensitivity?
There are a lot of terms out there for abnormal reactions to food – food allergies, food intolerances, food triggers, and food sensitivities. So what’s the difference?
A food allergy is an immediate and potentially life-threatening reaction to food. When you eat a food you’re allergic to, like peanuts, your body’s mast cells (part of your immune system) sense the peanuts using IgE antibodies. The mast cells then sound an alarm that can cause hives, swelling, itchy eyes, a scratchy throat, and in severe cases anaphylaxis. This reaction is due to the release of histamine, which is why you take an antihistamine like Benadryl to get rid of allergy symptoms.
If you are allergic to a food, you must avoid eating it to prevent adverse reactions. Food allergies likely aren’t causing your migraine symptoms, but if you suspect you have a food allergy it’s a good idea to see an allergist for further testing.
A food intolerance does NOT involve your immune system. Instead, an intolerance is caused by difficulties breaking down food, which can cause diarrhea, gas, bloating, and other uncomfortable GI symptoms. One of the most common intolerances is lactose intolerance, caused by a deficiency in the enzyme lactase.
Intolerances likely don’t have much to do with migraine, as the symptoms are seen only in your gut. If you suspect you have a food intolerance, avoiding that food and seeing if symptoms improve is often all the treatment that’s needed. Unlike a food allergy, you may be able to eat a small amount of the food you’re intolerant to without experiencing symptoms.
Food triggers can be foods like chocolate, red wine, and aged cheese. We think they might trigger migraine symptoms because they contain natural excitotoxins, or foods that can overstimulate your nerve cells. Like intolerances, food triggers do not involve your immune system and you may be able to eat a small amount without experiencing symptoms.
The problem with food triggers is that they vary widely from person to person, and elimination diets designed around them employ the “SWAG” method (Scientific Wild-Ass Guessing – is that the best term you’ve ever heard or what??). While using this method can certainly work for some people, it can be frustrating and won’t cut it if you’re dealing with food sensitivities.
Food sensitivities, like food allergies, involve your immune system. A major difference between the two is that while allergies have an immediate and often severe effect, sensitivities can take hours to days to cause symptoms that are milder and kind of vague. When you eat a food you’re sensitive to, your body’s white blood cells (part of your immune system) are triggered directly and sound the alarm, causing widespread inflammation and a range of symptoms. While food allergies involve IgE antibodies, food sensitivities involve IgG, IgM, or IgA antibodies, or even just the food particle itself!
There are a lot of tests out there that say they’ll tell you what your food sensitivities are, and most of them are not super helpful (a topic for another post!). One test, called MRT, is the best one we have right now and measures the actual response your white blood cells have to a huge list of foods and food chemicals. Using the results of this test, a dietitian can design a personalized elimination diet that can relieve migraine symptoms in as little as ten days!
Do I Have A Food Sensitivity?
Not everyone with migraine has food sensitivities, although it’s a lot more common than you might think. And when you pair food sensitivities to the already sensitive migraine brain, you have the perfect recipe for disaster.
If food sensitivities are contributing to your migraine symptoms, you likely have other stuff going on like eczema, brain fog, fatigue, fibromyalgia, achy joints, or depression/anxiety. Food sensitivities cause widespread inflammation that can either cause these symptoms directly, or make conditions you’re genetically susceptible to (like migraine) spin out of control.
What Do I Do If I Think I Have Food Sensitivities?
If you suspect food sensitivities are behind your migraine symptoms, your first step is to work with a dietitian who specializes in food sensitivities and migraine. After you complete the MRT test to determine what food sensitivities you have, your dietitian will work with you to design a personalized elimination diet that should start to alleviate your symptoms within 2 weeks or so.
The thing to remember with elimination diets is that they are not meant to be done forever! You will eliminate the foods you’re reactive to temporarily, and once you feel better you can start reintroducing foods one-by-one to test your reaction. The end goal of an elimination diet is to have you eating as many different foods as possible, as often as possible! Like intolerances and triggers, you will likely be able to eat a smaller amount of the foods you’re sensitive to without experiencing a reaction. This is where listening to your body and keeping track of symptoms comes in!
Working with a qualified dietitian to complete this process is crucial because it isn’t always easy. Having the support of someone who can cheer you and answer your questions on will make sure you are able to succeed and start feeling better soon!
Think food sensitivities might be behind your migraine symptoms? Click the button below to join my wait list for personalized nutrition counseling!