by Dr. Bill Rawls
Last Updated 2/26/17

Most everyone has an allergy to something. Mine is to shrimp. If I get raw shrimp on my skin, I immediately develop a rash, plus swelling, itching, and hives.

I discovered this when I was a child. I was on a fishing trip. We were using raw shrimp for bait. The gnats were bad, so I kept rubbing my face after I had used my hands to bait the hooks. Before long, my face was so swollen I couldn’t see. As you can imagine, I have been very careful about touching raw shrimp ever since.

What’s interesting is I can eat shrimp all day, as long as they are well cooked. As far as I know, raw shrimp is my only true food allergy.

Most people understand what severe food allergies are. My story is a pretty common one: When exposed to something you eat, it causes a horrible reaction. But what about food sensitivities? Is there a difference? As a matter of fact, there is.

Food sensitivities occur specifically as a result of damage to the intestinal tract. There is a strong link between food sensitivities and processed food consumption. The theory goes that processed food products delay emptying of the stomach and suppress acid secretion and production of enzymes. This suppression inhibits the digestion of proteins. Processed food contributes to overgrowth of abnormal bacteria in the gut, which damages the intestinal lining.

Wheat fiber may additionally damage the lining, as sensitivities involving wheat are extremely common. Damage allows undigested proteins from commonly eaten foods to cross over the intestinal membrane barrier. Antibodies, IgG type, are activated and stick to the foreign protein-forming immune complexes which circulate throughout the body, causing symptoms. Blood testing for specific antibodies can define food sensitivities.

Food allergies involve a different physiological mechanism altogether. They occur as immediate reactions to allergen exposure through activation of IgE antibodies and histamine. That’s why antihistamine drugs work for this type of allergic reaction. Allergies manifest as either skin reactions or classic hay fever with a runny nose and watery eyes.

Any exposure to an allergen causes a reaction; even slight exposure can sometimes cause an extreme reaction. Allergies of this sort are lifelong. Testing for allergies involves a tedious process of applying potential allergens to the skin and observing for reactions.

In the early stages of my struggle with fibromyalgia and chronic Lyme disease, I did a blood panel testing for food sensitivities. Interestingly, I was strongly reactive to about half the foods I commonly ate.

Eating these foods does not typically cause a skin reaction. I probably would not have known them to be a source of misery without the testing. But avoiding these foods, however, revealed a significant decrease in muscle pain and fatigue.

The very nonspecific symptoms associated with food sensitivities most commonly include fatigue, malaise, and muscle pain. Symptoms are typically delayed hours or even days after exposure to the offending foods.

Many foods can be involved, and the degree of reaction is dependent on the amount of exposure. In other words, if you eat a very limited amount of the offending food, you will have only a very limited reaction.

Someone with high exposure to various offending foods, however, may not only have nonspecific reactions but can also experience aggravation of hay fever-type symptoms and sometimes skin reactions (as with many things, the margins between allergies and sensitivities is sometimes blurred).

This person is typically quite miserable, as I was before I gave up processed foods and started paying attention to what I ate.

The above explanation fits quite nicely for most patients I saw who tested positive for food sensitivities. Each person, after seeing the report, made the immediate connection that the offending foods are the ones they consumed most commonly.

Wheat, dairy, and tree nuts are usually at the top of the list, but any foods can be involved.

If that person is willing to avoid or at least limit the offending foods, symptoms typically improve over several days. If that person is willing to avoid processed foods completely, the gut will heal, and symptoms associated with food sensitivities will lessen dramatically.

While all of this may suggest that consuming processed food with resulting food sensitivities is the cause of fibromyalgia, I think it’s just part-and-parcel of a larger issue.

Most every fibromyalgia patient has food sensitivities to some degree, and most have a history of processed food consumption, especially wheat and dairy products. Interestingly, however, I came in contact with a few fibromyalgia patients who had terrible food sensitivities but did not have a strong history of processed food consumption.

This exception implies that there are other factors. I feel strongly that all cases of fibromyalgia are connected to hidden infections of low-grade opportunistic microbes. However, I don’t know which is the cart and which is the horse.

In other words, I don’t know whether food sensitivities cause Chronic Immune Dysfunction that allows for opportunistic microbes to take hold, or whether the microbes affect the immune system in such a way as to promote food sensitivities. Either way, addressing food sensitivities is part of addressing fibromyalgia.

In my case, I had been having symptoms for many years before I defined myself as having fibromyalgia and chronic Lyme disease. Avoiding the foods I was sensitive to helped, but completely avoiding all processed food helped more. Avoiding all wheat products possibly helped the most of anything.

I still have to be very careful about what I eat. After years of using soy milk and other soy products instead of dairy, I developed a sensitivity to soy. I switched to coconut, but after a couple of years also became sensitive to that. Now, I’m using limited amounts of hemp milk.

I have come to appreciate the difference between a fibromyalgia flare-up (usually brought on by stress) and symptoms associated with a food sensitivity. They are different in subtle ways. I can eat foods that I am sensitive to, as long as exposure is intermittent and in small amounts.

Learn more about which foods to eat (and not to eat) in my Natural Herbal Protocol »

At the very least, it keeps me on my toes. I am constantly looking for new foods and new food experiences. Fortunately, the diversity of foods available and the almost unlimited number of ways of enjoying food is one of the great pleasures of life! You have plenty of options.

Dr. Rawls is a physician who overcame Lyme disease through natural herbal therapy. You can learn more about Lyme disease in Dr. Rawls’ new best selling book, Unlocking Lyme.

You can also learn about Dr. Rawls’ personal journey in overcoming Lyme disease and fibromyalgia in his popular blog post, My Chronic Lyme Journey.