Digestive Health

Tending to Food Sensitivities

CARE method can help alleviate the stress behind some perplexing and common digestive complaints
BY Amy Denney TIMEJuly 30, 2022 PRINT

The confusion over food sensitivities, intolerances, and allergies can make it difficult for those suffering reactions to find relief.

While some go on a journey to uncover root causes, others desperately try anything to feel better, sometimes finding themselves immersed in a variety of tests with different specialists who seem to contradict one another with a plethora of overwhelming strategies.

Food allergies are immune responses to specific foods, and they differ from intolerances or sensitivities, which can be related to problems digesting certain foods or even digestive issues.

One thing has become clearer in recent years—stress is a major player in these dietary issues. That’s a biochemical reality for the human body. Stress activates the sympathetic nervous system and its fight-or-flight response, and shuts down the parasympathetic nervous system and its rest-or-digest role.

While stress is unavoidable, it can be managed, and there are strategies for coping with different sources of stress. These approaches can ease the symptoms of food reactions while helping you enjoy a calmer life—even if the root causes of your stress and food sensitivities are unclear.

Dr. Doni Wilson, a naturopathic doctor and author of the new book “Master Your Stress, Reset Your Health,” recommends her CARE method as a path to better gut health. CARE is an acronym for a simple but customizable self-care approach that anyone can use regardless of genetics or lifestyle. It stands for clean eating, adequate sleep, recovery, and exercise.

Wilson has spent two decades categorizing different types of stress and the relationship of stress to leaky gut syndrome, which she says is a major cause of food intolerances, allergies, and sensitives. Leaky gut is a condition in which some food particles leak through the intestinal walls that are supposed to form a barrier that decides what gets absorbed into the bloodstream and what stays outside.

In her book, Wilson points out that leaky gut occurs because our bodies can’t make enough intestinal cells to replace cells damaged from stress, pesticides, and medications. As a result, our intestinal walls grow thin and allow substances to leak through and wreak havoc by triggering an autoimmune response.

Stress encompasses a broad range of “fight, flight, or freeze” responses that can be triggered by physical trauma, such as accidents or injuries; psychosocial or emotional traumas, such as the death of a loved one or financial loss; or other invasions of the body, such as chemical, bacterial, or viral exposures. Any of these situations can impact the nervous and immune systems.

While we tend to encounter stress every day, the body suffers long-lasting consequences when stress is ongoing and the nervous system can’t gear down out of the fight-or-flight state, depleting the body and leaving us unable to recover.

Clean Eating

Shopping on the perimeter of the grocery store, where whole foods such as produce are located, is a good starting point for clean eating. Avoid processed foods that are more likely to contain artificial ingredients, preservatives, and high amounts of sugar, over-processed grains, and common allergens. These foods trigger inflammation, an immune response the body uses to deal with foreign invaders such as viruses and injuries such as cuts.

Removing inflammatory foods from our diet is a necessary step in healing from food sensitivities.

Clean eating provides your body with easily digested foods from which it can absorb vitamins and minerals without triggering an immune response. On the other hand, sugar and other ingredients put an undue burden on your digestive system. Sugary foods that are highly inflammatory can spike your blood sugar levels and lower your mood, energy, and digestive response.

Many specialists might also recommend eliminating known inflammatory foods such as gluten, dairy, most oils, fried foods, processed meats, grain-fed meats, pesticide-laden foods, certain fruits with high sugar content such as bananas and pineapples, sugary drinks, and alcohol. This approach, called an elimination diet, allows the gut to heal. When foods are added back into the diet, it’s easier to solve the mystery of which foods are triggering an immune response.

An alternative approach that Wilson and other specialists might use is testing first to determine a patient’s trigger foods and removing only those from the diet while the gut heals.

Oftentimes, offending foods can be eaten again, once healing occurs, and people with food sensitivities will eventually gain a broader menu. However, Wilson believes gluten is an exception. Gluten, a type of protein found in wheat, barley, and rye, isn’t digested well, and can be inflammatory for many people.

Adequate Sleep

Sleep is the ultimate recovery period for your body—and gut health can determine the quality of your sleep.

Food sensitivities can impact sleep patterns, because inflammation might cause sinus congestion. When it’s hard to breathe, you might wake up more frequently and sleep more poorly. Adults need 6 1/2 or more hours of sleep each night. Frequent waking, snoring, or feeling exhausted even when you’ve had sufficient sleep can be signs of a sleep disorder.

Exercise can help regulate the circadian rhythm, as well as having a consistent schedule of going to bed and waking. Other sleep tips include keeping your bedroom dark and quiet—and free of electronic devices. Avoid big meals, caffeine, and alcohol a few hours before sleep.

If you have trouble sleeping, you might also evaluate your medications and supplements to see if they might be a factor. Besides reading labels, be sure to check for interactions. For instance, melatonin—a popular and relatively safe sleep supplement—has a long list of interactions that can change its potency or alter the effect of other medications and supplements.

If you’re unsure about the quality of your sleep, you can track your sleep with an app. Some apps record your breathing at various points in the night to reveal whether you have sleep apnea or other issues.


Doing activities you enjoy can facilitate healing, help you rebound from stress, and make your nervous system more adaptive. Self-care recovery activates the parasympathetic rest-and-digest side of the autonomic nervous system, so all the nutrients in your food can be properly digested and used.

That’s why it’s wise to evaluate your exposure to stress and come up with a management plan to deal with it.

Many experts emphasize the benefits of protecting wellness, especially in a post-pandemic world. A slower, intentional lifestyle that embraces self-care is a great way to lower your stress and improve well-being.

A good approach to holistic self-care should focus on emotional, environmental, financial, intellectual, occupational, physical, social, and spiritual elements, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

“The question is, ‘How can I take better care of myself knowing I’m exposed to day-to-day stresses all the time?’” Wilson says.

Some of those options can be as simple as practicing gratitude, doing regular breathing exercises, meditating, spending time in nature, interacting with animals, gardening, physical touch, music therapy, solitude, and doing things that elicit joy and laughter. Your approach should be unique to your needs and interests.

Beware, though, that things that are healthful for some people can be stressful for others, Wilson points out. One example is intermittent fasting, a dietary discipline that speeds up natural cell regeneration (autophagy) and stabilizes blood sugar by limiting the daily time frame when a person eats, or might involve eating less or nothing at all on certain days. Those with disordered eating patterns tend to obsess over these kinds of rules, and this tendency can increase levels of cortisol, the stress hormone that makes leaky gut more likely.


Moving your body promotes digestion and helps you better regulate your thoughts and emotions.

The vagus nerve is the longest nerve in the body. It connects the brain to the heart, lungs, digestive organs, and more. It’s the key nerve of the parasympathetic nervous system. Exercise helps to activate the vagus nerve and can facilitate better digestion. A short, low-intensity walk after a meal can be helpful.

Keep in mind that exercise causes stress on the body, too. High-impact, rapid heart rate exercises, and even weightlifting are forms of controlled stress. But unlike chronic stress, this kind of stress goes away and brings the mind and body to a relaxed state. When approached with the right mindset, any kind of exercise can elevate endorphins—hormones released by the pituitary gland that act as a natural painkiller—and serotonin, the “happiness hormone.”

Participate in those exercises you love doing that don’t make you feel exhausted. Choose any activity you enjoy that gets your body moving. Exercise can come from a hobby such as golf or pickleball that gets you outdoors and in the community—two things that also help to lower stress.

The best activity for supporting a weakened immune system is walking. It’s simple to do and free, and you can begin at an easy level such as walking around the block. Stretching is another great activity, and many yoga poses offer the benefit of being easy for beginners and beneficial to the immune system.


If you aren’t sure which foods are triggers for you, there are practitioners who can test for food sensitivities. You might also want to consider testing for microbiome balance, mycotoxins, and genetics. These answers can give you a clearer picture of what you’re facing and how you can bring your body back into balance.

Food sensitivity panels that check for immunoglobulin A and G (IgA and IgG) antibodies are sometimes used to uncover food sensitivities, though the efficacy of these tests remain debated in scientific research circles. Food allergy panels look for IgE antibodies and can uncover foods that trigger an immediate allergic response.

IgE reactions can be serious because of anaphylaxis, a very quick allergic reaction that can include difficulty breathing, dizziness, or loss of consciousness. Without immediate medical care and treatment—usually through an epinephrine auto-injector such as EpiPen—anaphylaxis can be fatal. But even with true food allergies, there’s a range of possible reactions, including gut inflammation, that aren’t as serious.

To further complicate distinguishing food sensitivities and food allergies, a histamine release that doesn’t produce a positive IgE reaction can be influenced by genetics, imbalanced gut bacteria, and mold toxicity, according to a study on histamines published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2007.

While none of the tests are foolproof, they’re still better than guessing and essential for anyone having severe reactions.

When working with patients healing from leaky gut, Wilson also suggests digestive enzymes, drinking more water and electrolytes, getting necessary nutrients and herbal support (often glutamine, an amino acid that can assist in growing new intestinal cells while decreasing inflammation), and optimizing the gut microbiome.

“The ultimate solution is, we need to heal our stress to prevent food sensitivities and heal our guts,” she says. “Let’s heal your gut, and the food sensitivity becomes less of an issue.”

Amy Denney
Amy Denney is an award-winning journalist, certified Holy Yoga instructor and light therapy specialist. She works with clients looking for natural, side-effect free solutions to pain and stress.
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