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Unlike a food allergy, in which a peanut can be a healthy snack for some people but life-threatening for others, food sensitivities are harder to detect because the reaction is triggered by the digestive system and can occur days or even weeks after initial consumption. The challenge with identifying a food sensitivity is that even if you remove one problem food from your diet, there may be another causing constant underlying inflammation, so your health may not improve.
You may also switch out one problem food for another without realizing it. Antacids may help your stomach feel better, but that just allows you to keep eating foods you shouldn’t be eating in the first place. I knew I felt better when I didn’t eat anything containing gluten, but I didn’t know why. All the gluten sensitivity tests came back negative. I also suspected I had adrenal fatigue; I was constantly exhausted. But when I suggested this to my doctor, I was quickly dismissed. He said that was just a way for health practitioners to sell expensive supplements that we simply pee out in the toilet bowl.
I decided I was going to find out for myself. During my 90-day mission, I came across a food sensitivity blood test by the company EverlyWell, which offers convenient at-home health-testing kits. A little pinprick to the finger, a few tiny samples of blood, and you will have your results back within one to two weeks. There’s a lot of controversy surrounding the accuracy of food-sensitivity tests, such as what causes a specific response to specific foods. Among medical researchers, limited research, vague terminology with conflicting definitions of allergies vs. intolerance vs. sensitivities, gaps in research and, arguably, the inherent discomfort of the unknown all play a role. Some measure antibodies in the blood, such as the “IgG test” (since IgG is a “memory antibody,” it only confirms exposure to a food, not necessarily a reaction to it). An IgG test is also administered when detecting viral infections, such as the Covid-19 antibody test, which indicates if the person has already had the virus. Others are centered on studying white blood cells as an indicator of inflammatory responses, including the Alcat test and the enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay, or ELISA.
Since I had attempted to eliminate different foods I intuitively felt were troublesome, but I still wasn’t feeling my best, I chose to throw caution to the wind and try the EverlyWell Food Sensitivity Test despite the controversy surrounding it. Not sure what to expect, I did the pinprick and sent off for my results. When I received them, I was surprised. The test confirmed what I already knew, and told me some things I didn’t. I knew coffee and sunflower seeds weren’t my friends, but I wasn’t expecting coconut. Thinking it was supremely healthy, I had introduced coconut oil to my diet around the time I became ill. I decided to investigate further by eliminating coconut from my diet for two months. By the second month, the brain fog had begun to clear and my energy was coming back. Then one morning I woke up to brain fog, fatigue and a general malaise that lasted for three days. Making a list of everything I had eaten that could have triggered it, I finally realized it was the delicious Thai curry I had wolfed down the night before without a second thought for its central ingredient: coconut milk.
I was also surprised to discover I had a mild sensitivity to baker’s yeast, a common agent used in baking. Differing from gluten, which is a wheat protein, it is a strain of saccharomyces, a fungus. A positive result for baker’s yeast could indicate a yeast imbalance in the gut. Because it is present in almost everything that contains gluten, I had immediately thought gluten was the problem. This explained why sometimes I could eat certain products containing wheat and feel fine, while other times I would be hit with fatigue the following day. While my experience with a food sensitivity test helped me weed out specific trigger foods, it is admittedly purely anecdotal, but you may find it worthy of further investigation and research.
Take Control Of Your Destiny
My successful experiment drove me to reach out to EveryWell’s founder and CEO Julia Cheek and and its executive medical director, Dr. Marra Francis, to find out more. It turned out that Julia’s experience was very similar to mine. She started the company after suffering from chronic fatigue and unexplainable aches and pains. “I had a lot of anxiety, and ultimately these were basic hormone imbalances and adrenal gland imbalances,” she says. “But I spent this period — this odyssey — of six months going to tons of different doctors to try to get testing done and complete the issues. The doctors themselves were all excellent, but the problem was that they ordered a bunch of tests, and I was never given access to the results. I didn’t even know what tests were run. I didn’t have explanations. Then I started getting these bills coming in from requested lab work every few months, because I was on a high-deductible plan. I started figuring out that the high-deductible, noncoverage situation for Americans was just growing dramatically. The majority of Americans are having to pay so much more for these basic services, and the services actually don’t always relate to them. So I really wanted to say, how can we use technology and digital health to disrupt the traditional experience for consumers and help them get access to this testing in an easier way? Access to tests consumers want, access to a more convenient process, or access to actually one price, a transparent price, is what was needed. You know exactly what you’re going to pay, and we won’t charge you again. That message has resonated with thousands and thousands of people.”
I asked her how she felt being dismissed by doctors, specifically in relation to her adrenal fatigue. She said, “I was scheduled for a kidney stone removal that they stopped 12 hours before [when] the X-rays showed that I didn’t have one. I had CAT scans and MRIs, and I was told I just had pulled a back muscle, and that I just needed to relax. I’m always about what are people’s incentives and what are they trying to achieve, so I wasn’t mad at the doctors themselves. I was mad at the institutions. I was mad at the pressure put on doctors, and how they have to operate, and how they’re incentivized. They’re often doing the best that they can, but that is with their own constructs. But that is, at the end of the day, not achieving the goal.”
On her mission to biohack her way back to health, and fighting to finally get her lab results, she took them to a functional medicine doctor and an acupuncturist. “They found all these areas, and it was certainly my cortisol that had completely gone just off-the-radar wacky,” she says. “But my vitamin D was dangerously low, my magnesium, my vitamin B6, my vitamin B12, my iron. I was low on all of those, but nobody had put the picture together. I was not low enough, but it was this comprehensive set of things. I almost had very, very bad treatment as a result of not pinpointing the right issues. Looking back, it seems so ridiculous that I almost underwent a procedure when what I really needed to do was just make some lifestyle changes. I think that perfectly reflects this drastic gap in care.”
Under the Radar
Just like in Julia’s case, my doctors had failed to identify a severe vitamin D deficiency; they had also overlooked my food sensitivities. When I asked Dr. Francis how the reference ranges are set for vitamins, minerals, hormones, etc., that doctors use to tell us if our results are normal or abnormal, she replied, “It’s based on population studies. We have population studies for everything: for mineral levels, for vitamin levels, for what normal cholesterol should be. When you look at cholesterol, the population studies are based upon who developed heart disease vs. who didn’t. So at what ranges is that considered normal vs. elevated risk for heart disease?
These normal ranges are really set by society and set by population studies. Within the lab, the reference ranges, those are set based upon biological variability within your body. How much can that marker vary from day to day, from hour to hour within your body, and still be considered normal? When I asked Julia about EverlyWell’s most popular test, she replied, “The food sensitivity test is not only one of the most popular, but we get more life-changing customer testimonials and physician testimonials around when they referred their customers to take the test. For women, hormone imbalances have actually improved, and they’ve continued their regular cycles again; even skin conditions have resolved. People with psoriatic arthritis that medication traditionally couldn’t help find foods that were causing what they considered to be inflammatory flares, and their psoriatic arthritis was all but cured.”
Testing: What’s the Norm?
Dr. Francis adds that other conditions that have been cleared up as a result of the food-sensitivity test include bloating, migraines, and the e standard guinea pig in medicine has always been the 154-pound man, which was originally set by the American College of Physicians (ACP) and the American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP) in the early 1900s. Now, obviously, we are trying to look at different populations because we don’t all fit that mold. I will say that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has done a very good job at separating out pregnant and lactating women. Obviously, what their body needs and what is considered normal for them is vastly different than the standard 154-pound man. So we do have some population studies that have been separated out by gender, by race and by pregnancy status. They’ve even had people who reduced their anxiety and depression through dietary changes.
Dr. Francis emphasizes that she isn’t saying that food sensitivities cause depression, but “when someone is being evaluated for symptoms of depression, we fail to look at their diet traditionally as a medical doctor. Which sort of confuses me, and it sounds silly, but we have that old saying: ‘You are what you eat.’ Why don’t we look at diet as part of the puzzle when we’re trying to figure out why someone has the symptoms that they do? I think it really does a disservice to our patients. Between all of the additives and chemicals in our food system right now, I think food is probably one of the biggest causes of people being unhealthy.”
What Dr. Francis said made sense to me on a personal level, considering my experience with depression. All I could think after my doctors suggested antidepressants was: How many people are put on medication when the cause of their problem is really a food sensitivity? This research has yet to be done. EverlyWell will be undertaking an opt-in study of its customers that will be one of the largest of its kind on food sensitivities. Currently, studies are limited and opinions divided; however, with fields like nutritional psychology gaining traction, I’m optimistic that future testing protocols will help people find answers. For the time being, a simple food-elimination diet may be your best bet.