Does it seem like you’re reacting to some foods in ways you never did before you reached perimenopause or menopause? Could you be experiencing food allergies or food sensitivities? It’s possible! Let’s take a closer look.
What are food allergies and sensitivities?
Food allergies and food sensitivities are two different things, even though many people use the terms interchangeably. A food allergy is a condition in which specific foods or ingredients trigger the immune system to respond in a negative way. The immune system attacks proteins (allergens) in food that are harmless to most people. Symptoms of an allergic reaction to food may be mild to severe and can include hives, itchy mouth, shortness of breath, wheezing, shock, vomiting, stomach cramps, dizziness, difficulty swallowing, swelling of the tongue, and weak pulse. Some people with a food allergy can experience anaphylaxis, which is a sudden life-threatening reaction. According to FARE (Food Allergy Research and Education), 32 million Americans have food allergies: 1 in 10 adults and 1 in 13 children.
Although more than 170 foods have been identified as causing food allergy reactions, the nine most common ones in the United States include milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, soy, fish, crustacean shellfish, and sesame. At least 15 percent of individuals with food allergies are first diagnosed when they are adults, and more than 25 percent of adults with food allergies say their allergies developed during adulthood.
If you have food sensitivities (also known as food intolerances), your digestive system has a difficult time digesting certain foods. You may experience symptoms such as abdominal pain, gas, diarrhea, or bloating. The immune system is not involved. Symptoms of food sensitivities typically occur within a few hours of consuming the food while symptoms of food allergy often occur immediately or within a few minutes of eating the food.
Common food sensitivities include lactose intolerance (a sugar found in milk and dairy foods), histamine (found in wine, cheese, bananas, avocados, chocolate, pineapple), and gluten. Food sensitivities are usually caused by the lack of certain enzymes that help break down specific foods or ingredients.
How are food allergies and sensitivities associated with menopause?
Among the many bodily changes that occur in perimenopause and menopause are those associated with histamine production, digestion, and the gastrointestinal tract. Fluctuations in estrogen levels can lead to spikes in the production of histamine, which is associated with food sensitivities. When histamine levels rise, so does the body’s sensitivity to allergens.
Digestive issues are common in the menopause years, including a slowdown in the digestive process. This can cause you to become more intolerant of some foods and give bacteria the opportunity to stay around longer in your gut and ferment. These activities can result in gas, bloating, abdominal pain, and other symptoms. Women who had food allergies or food sensitivities prior to reaching perimenopause and menopause may experience a change in their reactions and symptoms.
How to manage food allergies and sensitivities naturally
If you have food allergies, the best way to manage them is to avoid the offending foods entirely. Read all food labels carefully. When eating out, ask questions about the menu and emphasize the importance of knowing what is in the food. It is best to avoid any food item when in doubt.
For food sensitivities, you may be able to consume small amounts of the offending foods without experiencing symptoms or only mild ones. If you are lactose intolerant, you can choose from lactose-free dairy products or use lactase enzymes available over the counter. You also may take probiotic or plant enzyme supplements to aid digestion.
When to call your doctor
If you are experiencing unexpected reactions to foods, consult your doctor and discuss whether food allergy or sensitivity testing is necessary. You also should call your doctor if you experience extreme diarrhea or abdominal pain or any other severe reaction to a food. Sudden unexplained weight loss is another red flag.
Food allergies and food sensitivities may worsen or newly develop in perimenopause and menopause. Keep a record of your reactions to certain foods and discuss them with your physician if they are a concern.