by Dr. Bill Rawls
Updated 9/30/21

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, and 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.

However, what’s interesting is that 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.

Differences Between Food Allergies and Food Sensitivities

Food Allergies

Food allergies are the most easily identifiable because they occur as immediate reactions to an offending agent. The immune system misconstrues a food ingredient as a foreign, harmful substance and produces an immune response by activating IgE antibodies and histamine to defend against it. 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 response. Testing for allergies involves a tedious process of applying potential allergens to the skin and observing for reactions or blood tests to measure IgE antibody levels. Allergies of this sort are lifelong and require you to avoid the substance altogether or have antihistamine drugs at the ready.

Food Sensitivities

There is a strong link between food sensitivities and processed food consumption. But food sensitivities come from a different mechanism — they occur specifically as a result of damage to the intestinal tract. The theory goes that processed food products delay emptying of the stomach and suppress acid secretion and production of vital digestive enzymes. This suppression inhibits the digestion of proteins, and processed food contributes to the overgrowth of abnormal bacteria in the gut, further damaging the intestinal lining.

Additionally, wheat fiber tends to place a particular burden on the gut lining, as sensitivities involving wheat are extremely common. Damage to the intestinal tract allows undigested proteins from commonly eaten foods to cross the intestinal membrane barrier. Antibodies, IgG type, are activated and stick to the foreign protein-forming immune complexes, which circulate throughout the body, causing a range of symptoms. Blood testing for specific antibodies can help define food sensitivities.

Blurred woman in mask looking in microscope for making blood test, laboratory interior

In the early stages of my struggle with chronic Lyme disease and fibromyalgia, I did a blood panel testing for food sensitivities. Interestingly, I was strongly reactive to about half the foods I commonly ate. But unlike the sudden skin reaction I had to raw shrimp, I had no external signs of sensitivities from the foods I was consuming each day. Without the testing, I probably wouldn’t have known them to be a source of some significant symptoms attributed to fibromyalgia. Avoiding these foods, however, revealed a significant decrease in muscle pain and fatigue. Many symptoms tied to food sensitivities are nonspecific, but they can look a lot like fibromyalgia. Some symptoms you may notice include:

  • Fatigue
  • Malaise
  • Muscle pain
  • Joint pain
  • Brain fog
  • Abdominal pain
  • Digestion issues
  • Irritability
  • Headaches
  • Migraines

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 you’ve had. In other words, if you eat a minimal amount of the offending food, you’ll probably have a limited reaction.

Sad tired young woman touching forehead having headache migraine or depression, upset frustrated girl troubled with problem feel stressed cover crying face with hand suffer from grief sorrow concept

However, someone with high exposure to various offending foods may have several nonspecific reactions. They can also experience an aggravation of hay fever-type symptoms and sometimes skin reactions (as with many things, the margins between allergies and sensitivities are sometimes blurred). Typically, a person in this situation is quite miserable, as I was before I gave up processed foods and started paying closer 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. What were the most likely culprits? Wheat, dairy, and tree nuts were usually at the top of the list, but any foods could be involved.

If that person was willing to avoid or limit the offending foods, symptoms typically improved over several days. If that person avoided processed foods completely, the gut healed, and the symptoms associated with food sensitivities lessened dramatically.

Fibromyalgia and Processed Food Consumption

No doubt there’s a strong connection between fibromyalgia symptoms, consuming processed foods, and the resulting food sensitivities. But I think it’s just part-and-parcel of a larger issue. Here’s what I mean:

Most fibromyalgia patients have food sensitivities to some degree, and most have a history of processed food consumption, especially wheat and dairy products. Interestingly, I encountered 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 at play. I feel strongly that all cases of fibromyalgia are connected to hidden infections of low-grade opportunistic microbes — like the Lyme disease-causing bacteria borrelia or coinfections, including bartonella, babesia, mycoplasma, and others.

Addressing Food Sensitivities

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 symptoms. Here are some ways to begin that process.

1. Avoid Processed Foods.

Different colorful fruits and vegetables all over the table in full frame studio shot

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

To help nix processed food, I like to focus on plant-based whole foods with plenty of vegetables, low-sugar fruits like berries, healthy sources of protein (eggs, salmon, poultry, etc.), and healthy fats, including olive oil. As a general guideline, I fill my plate with at least 50% vegetables.

2. Add Gut Supportive Herbs.

image split in half. Half cup of ginger tea, half bowl of chlorella tablets

Restoring gut health is a critical factor in recovering from food sensitivities and the symptoms they may be causing. Two things I found to be very helpful were ginger tea and chlorella. Ginger tea is excellent, but it can cause burning and constipation for some, so use it carefully and monitor your reaction.

Chlorella, the freshwater algae, is great for the GI tract. The typical maintenance dose for chlorella is 5 to 7.5g total a day. For additional support, you may want to take 10g total a day. But ultimately, you should take the dosage that works best for you and your situation. It can have an incredible effect on your gut. Chlorella has the opposite effect of ginger for some and causes loose stools. Other gut supportive herbs to consider are:

  1. Berberine: A compound found in the stems, bark, roots, and rhizomes of a variety of herbs, berberine helps promote a healthy gut microbiome as well as soothe the intestines and support healthy bowel movements.
  2. Mucilage-containing herbs: Slippery elm contains mucilage, a slick, gel-like substance that naturally soothes sensitive or inflamed tissue in the gut lining. Mucilage also helps recreate the barrier in the gut lining to prevent food particles from leaking through, quelling a major source of inflammation in the body.
  3. Digestive enzymes: When you have a dysfunctional gut, you can’t produce enough digestive enzymes to break down food at a healthy rate, increasing the chances of having food sensitivities. Replacing those enzymes until you can restore your body’s capability to produce them on its own can help reduce stagnant food in your gut and speed your recovery. Digestive enzymes also keep moving any toxins along that aren’t absorbed by your tissues. Taking an assortment of enzymes (such as protease, amylase, alpha-galactosidase, lipase, and others) is ideal.
  4. Bitter herbs: Your tongue, stomach, pancreas, and colon have specific receptors that encourage the production of digestive enzymes, stomach acids, and liver bile that all aid in digestion the minute they taste bitter. To help keep the digestive process going efficiently, take bitters with every meal, and supplement with bitter herbs, such as dandelion.

3. Watch for New Offenders.

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 milk, but after a couple of years, I also became sensitive to that. Now, I’m using limited amounts of hemp milk with good success. If your symptoms get better after changing your diet, then pop back up, you still might be contending with food sensitivities, so stay vigilant — food journals and eliminations can help.

Close up partial portrait of black female author at home writing in journal

Using a Food Journal

A food journal involves chronicling what you eat over a period of time; two or three weeks should do the trick. Keep track of the following:

  • The times you eat
  • Each food you consume, including the brand names of the products
  • Oils used to cook
  • Beverages you drink
  • Noticeable adverse reactions
  • The times the adverse reactions occurred

When reviewing your food intake, sometimes a likely suspect will jump out at you. You may be able to avoid that particular food and begin to feel better again quickly. But other times, the culprit might not be so obvious, and you may need to bring this detailed information to a healthcare provider or a nutritionist who can help identify problematic foods and create a manageable, feasible diet for you to follow.

Implementing an Elimination Diet

Elimination diets require a longer commitment to complete than a food journal — usually five to six weeks. Remove the foods you think are causing problems or foods you’ve identified as questionable from your food journal. Then, reintroduce them one at a time as you track your progress, noting improvements or worsening symptoms. Here’s what a basic food elimination diet might look like:

  • Cut out the foods you believe may be creating issues for you for two to three weeks.
  • Notice whether you experience a reduction in symptoms during this timeframe.
  • Next, reintroduce foods one at a time back into your diet. Wait two to three days between each reintroduction to allow time for any reaction and avoid confusion about which food triggered your symptoms.
  • Track the return of any symptoms. If no symptoms return, that food can be brought back into the rotation, and you can move on to the next one.
  • If symptoms return or intensify, you’ll know that food is an issue for you, and you’ll need to eliminate it from your diet for a while and allow your digestive system more time to reset and heal.
  • Repeat the process with other foods you think could be problematic for you.

Like the food journal, if you need further support, a healthcare professional or a nutritionist can help you through the process of weeding out the foods that are continuing to cause distress, allowing inflammation to abate and the gut to continue healing.

Final Thoughts

Now that I’ve recovered from chronic Lyme disease and fibromyalgia using comprehensive herbal therapy and significant lifestyle modifications, I can eat foods that I am sensitive to as long as my exposure is intermittent and in small amounts.

These days, I’m 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! If you need to avoid foods due to sensitivities, you still have plenty of options to choose from. With time, your body can heal and experience a reduction in uncomfortable fibromyalgia symptoms, too.

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.