Are You Sensitive to Your Food?

By Cammi Woodall

Most patterns in life are good, right? Knowing the UPS carrier will bring your package around 4:00, the toaster takes exactly 1 minute 14 seconds to achieve perfect toastiness, or you can go 27 more miles once your car dings “I’m empty!” The food you eat can trigger patterns as well. Some good, some bad.

Chocolate can give you a sugar rush and satisfy that creamy, sweet-tooth craving. But for some people, indulging in this delectable treat will guarantee pain, nausea, fatigue, and intestinal problems. Oh, sweet chocolate! How can you deceive us so?

Six years ago, I noticed I had a pattern in my life but it wasn’t a good one. Every month I had to take sick days due to headaches and an upset stomach. It was not uncommon for me to have headaches. No big deal – take a Motrin and go on about my day. But a migraine episode was different. Migraine pain is unique and personal to each person. When I get a migraine headache, I basically fall apart. The top of my head clenches so hard I feel like it is cramping. I can’t open my eyes all the way because the light hurts so badly, plus the muscles in my eyelids hurt. Sounds are magnified. Simple typing on a keyboard sounds like a machine gun, and people talking in normal voices feel like they are shouting through a bullhorn at me. My bones and joints hurt. Any move I make sets off a reaction in my stomach and… it is bad. I won’t go into details about that. Just nausea and sickness. So much sickness. And during all these symptoms, the top of my head is still cramping, my face feels like it is going to implode, and I am dizzy. After the initial pain, my headaches for days and the top of my head feels bruised for a week.

My medical tests were okay – gall bladder and thyroid checked out fine, blood pressure good. Medical professionals had the same basic diagnosis – exercise and lose weight. Who hasn’t heard this before? My sister and my mother urged me to start a diary, keeping track of what I ate, where I ate, stress levels, and how I felt afterward. That is when my pattern emerged.

So what was common about my sick times? Certain foods appeared each time – processed meats like bacon and sausage, highly processed food, and ranch dressing. (I will also admit I had a slight addiction to Doritos. I would keep a bag open on my kitchen cabinet and go by several times a day, grabbing or two to munch on.)

I realized I have a food intolerance or food sensitivity. I am sensitive to two things –

1.      Nitrates/nitrites – a chemical in processed meats that are used to keep meat fresh and gives it that nice pink color. If sensitive, they trigger migraine pain by expanding the blood vessels in your brain.

2.      Monosodium glutamate or MSG – this is the chemical that makes food taste good. Almost all boxed foods on the grocery store shelf have some form of MSG. The chemical makes you crave more of what you just ate. If you suspect MSG sensitivity, check the ingredients lists for monosodium glutamate, the word hydrolyzed, the word autolyzed, yeast extract, or carrageenan. There are others, so do some research into the ways MSG can be hidden in your food.

Both sensitivities come with controversy. With nitrates, many companies are following a new food trend of ‘uncured’ or ‘no nitrates added.’ Some companies have completely stopped using synthetic sodium nitrate and used powders derived from celery root or cherries. Doubters say that these vegetable compounds have the same amounts of nitrates as the manufactured chemicals. They probably do. But I know how my body reacts when I eat a turkey sandwich made from the different ingredients. I do not get headaches if I eat the turkey or chicken or roast beef cured with vegetable powders. I do if eat luncheon meat cured with synthetic nitrates.

MSG is even more hot topic! Glutamates occur naturally in food, so naysayers to MSG sensitivity say any pain is nonexistent. Again, I can only go by what my body has experienced. I can eat a portion of food with MSG and I get migraines. So I study labels. I now avoid Doritos (weeping in the distance), most canned soups, flavored rice, seasoning blends, and most salad dressings. I look at labels whenever I go shopping.

There are no definitive studies that show scientific proof linking MSG and migraine pain. That does not stop my pain.

I would like to say now that I am not a doctor and there is a difference between a food allergy and food intolerance. The two share many of the same symptoms of headaches, such as nausea, lightheadedness, and head pain. But food allergies can be deadly. They are your immune system’s response to a foreign material your body considers harmful. Symptoms occur immediately upon eating the food and include hives and face/tongue swelling. You can go into anaphylactic shock. So please consult a doctor for any possible food allergy.

By contrast, food intolerance occurs anywhere from one hour to 48 hours after you eat your suspected food. It may not even occur every time you eat that particular item, or only if you eat a large amount. Food intolerance may be painful, but it is not life-threatening. 

Like I said earlier, each circumstance is personal to each person. I hope I helped you to know that certain foods can drastically affect how you feel. If you think you might be sensitive to a food, try eliminating it for several days and see how you feel.

And if you find a tasty replacement for MSG-laden Doritos, please let me know!

Prompt: I knew I shouldn’t have eaten the whole thing!

4 thoughts on “Are You Sensitive to Your Food?

  1. I found this very interesting. Allergies can be so tricky because of their different symptoms. A friend’s son went hyper-wild after drinking milk. My baby sister ran high fevers.
    Thankfully my intolerance to certain foods is mainly due to spices and produces burning, tingling, or even swelling of my gums. An immediate reaction is a lot easier to spot and deal with.
    As to nitrates, our daughter went through a time, age 2-4, when she’d get really sore … as if her urine burned her. It was infrequent, but she had a hard time during those spells. We finally figured out it was caused by processed meats. Once we cut them out of her diet, she was fine.

    • Since I have cut MSG and nitrates from my diet, I have only had to take one day of sick time due to a migraine in the last two years. It is amazing how small changes can affect you so much! I am glad your daughter is better.

  2. I have five food allergies, including chocolate. (Sigh) Small quantities don’t bother me, but if I overly indulge–migraine. I had to take my migraine med today. Maybe because I ate bacon yesterday. Maybe because I watched an hour of TV right before bed. Sometimes, there’s just no rhyme or reason.

  3. Pingback: Resources for the Healthy Writer | Inspired Prompt

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