Are Food Sensitivities Causing Your Migraine Attacks?

Have you tried it all? Are you at your wits’ end seeking migraine relief?

It may be time to consider how your diet is impacting your migraine. There may be foods you’re eating every single day that cause you pain.

Keep reading to discover why food sensitivities are hurting your head, how to identify your “problem” foods, and the path to relief.

Let’s begin!

Food Reactions

There are a few ways that food can “hurt” us.

Allergy

Food allergies are an immune response to food. Antibodies are made by the immune system to recognize potential threats and get rid of them. When exposed to an allergen, your body releases large amounts of IgE antibodies, which then rapidly cause the symptoms of an allergic reaction:

  • Swelling throat, lips, tongue
  • Hives
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Abdominal pain
  • Diarrhea
  • Anaphylaxis (life-threatening severe reaction, difficulty breathing)

About 4% of adults will have allergies to food. Allergies may develop at any age, and some children with food allergies may “grow out” of them.

To determine whether you have any food allergies, the best method is an oral challenge, eliminating the potential allergen from the diet before reintroducing it. Note that while this is the “gold standard” for food allergy testing, this may be dangerous due to severe allergic reactions like anaphylaxis.

Some people with food allergies may choose to have a skin test done, through scratching or pricking the skin with the potential allergen. While this is a more safe option, it is not very reliable, with average “positive predictive values” below 50% (1). This means less than 50% of skin testing results determining the presence of a food allergy are accurate.

There are 9 common allergies: Milk, egg, peanut, soy, wheat, tree nuts, shellfish, fish, & sesame, but any food can be an allergen. 

Intolerance

Food intolerances are reactions due to being unable to appropriately break down a food, usually due to a deficiency of an enzyme. Intolerances affect up to 20% of adults, with lactose intolerance being the most common.

In the case of lactose intolerance, a person cannot digest lactose because they have low amounts of lactase enzymes to break down the lactose.

Symptoms of food intolerance include abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea or constipation, and heartburn. Intolerances are diagnosed using a breath hydrogen test.

People with food intolerances should choose to avoid or limit offending foods. Reactions are dose-dependent, so small amounts may cause no symptoms. There are also enzyme supplements (like Lactaid) or special food items (lactose-free dairy products) that may allow someone with an intolerance to enjoy the offending food.

Sensitivity

Food sensitivities, like allergies, are also immune responses to food. When exposed to a sensitivity, chemical mediators are released. Mediators are substances that directly cause symptoms from tissue inflammation or damage.

These reactions may be triggered by at least 7 different mechanisms that cause immune cells to release mediators.

Unlike food allergies, sensitivities may be delayed by up to 72 hours. Like food intolerances, reactions to food sensitivities are also dose-dependent. 

People with chronic illnesses like migraine, IBS, or fibromyalgia are most likely to have food sensitivities. Some symptoms of food sensitivity reactions include:

  • Headaches or migraine attacks
  • Fatigue
  • Brain fog
  • Abdominal pain and bloating
  • Constipation or diarrhea
  • Acne, eczema, or dermatitis
  • Joint pain

Any food or food chemical may be a potential sensitivity, making identifying your offending foods difficult.

To determine whether you have food sensitivities, you may choose to do an elimination diet. While this can give accurate results, it can be very time consuming and tedious. There are several blood tests available to measure your food sensitivities, which will be discussed later on in this article.

graphic describing the difference between the 3 main food reactions: allergy, intolerance, sensitivity

Migraine Triggers

Everyone has an individual and unique migraine story. We all react differently to medications, have our own set of symptoms, and even have our own unique set of triggers.

Triggers are an internal or external event that causes abnormal activity in the brain. Some common migraine triggers include:

  • Environmental 
    • Weather changes
    • Bright lights
    • Strong smells
  • Lifestyle
    • Stress
    • Exercise
  • Diet
    • Dehydration
    • Skipped meals
    • Food sensitivities
  • Hormonal changes
    • Menstrual cycle
    • Menopause
    • Pregnancy

These common triggers are all changes to our external or internal environment.

We can learn our triggers by tracking our migraine attacks. However, food sensitivities are one of the most challenging triggers to identify.

Food Triggers

Food sensitivities are immune reactions that may trigger migraine attacks. When an offending food is consumed, chemical mediators are released.

Mediators are substances that directly cause symptoms from tissue inflammation or damage. This is significant because migraine is related to elevated inflammatory markers (2).

Identifying migraine food triggers can be challenging because:

  1. ANY food can be a migraine trigger.
  2. Reactions are dose-dependent.
  3. You may not feel symptoms for up to 72 hours after consuming the trigger food.

So how do we identify migraine food triggers?

MRT Food Sensitivity Testing

The most efficient and effective way to discover your food sensitivities is a blood test.

The best test available on the market today is the Mediator Release Test (MRT) for food sensitivities, which measures your reaction to 170 foods and chemicals.

How MRT Works

The MRT Food Sensitivity test measures your reaction to foods by measuring the mediator release in response to the food. As we have discussed, mediators are the substances that directly cause our symptoms.

Your blood sample is put through a machine that determines the mediators released by measuring your white blood cells before and after exposure to the food or chemical. The more the white blood cells shrink, the more inflammatory mediators are released.

The results of your MRT test quantifies your food sensitivities, ranging from your “safest” least-reactive green foods to your most reactive yellow and red foods.

sample test results of the MRT, shows graph with non-reactive foods, moderately reactive foods, and reactive foods

Once you have your MRT results, the next step is to follow an individualized Lifestyle Eating and Performance (LEAP) protocol under the guidance of a fully trained Certified LEAP Therapist.

Your Certified LEAP Therapist will interpret your MRT results and create an individualized diet plan to get you relief as quickly as possible. 

How MRT Is Different

Most food sensitivity tests simply measure the release of an antibody, like IgG. Antibodies are made by the immune system to recognize potential threats and get rid of them.

While antibodies do play a role in some food sensitivity reactions, this doesn’t give us the full picture. In fact, elevated IgG may not be a harmful reaction, even being a good thing in some cases.

IgG Tests

EverlyWell, Genova, Viome, Cerascreen, and many other food sensitivity tests measure the release of IgG antibody in response to food.

The limitations of IgG tests:

  • These tests assume inflammatory symptoms are a direct response to IgG release. We know this is not true, as high IgG alone doesn’t indicate a sensitivity (3). The release of mediators is what is associated with inflammatory symptoms.
    • In fact, high IgG may indicate a tolerance to food in some cases (4).
  • It’s usually required to consume any tested foods, even known sensitivities, within 2 weeks of taking the test.

LRA by ELISA/ACT

The Lymphocyte Response Assay (LRA) test determines food sensitivities by monitoring the reaction of lymphocytes to foods. Lymphocytes are a type of white blood cell that are nearly colorless.

If the colorless lymphocyte turns red in response to food, this means cells are “angry”, causing a defensive reaction.

Rather, if the lymphocyte turns blue in response to food, this means it is “cool”, promoting a protective reaction.

The science behind this test is lacking, and it ignores the importance of mediator release, which we know is what is directly causing symptoms.

ALCAT Test

Dr. Mark Pasula, before he created and patented the MRT Food Sensitivity test, also invented the ALCAT. He has since left the ALCAT lab to create MRT.

The ALCAT is similar to MRT in the sense that it is an endpoint test, measuring the change in white blood cells after exposure to foods. However, ALCAT is an older and outdated test, with technology that is less reliable and precise. 

The LEAP Program

Following an MRT Food Sensitivity test, your Certified LEAP Therapist will interpret your MRT results and create an individualized diet plan to get you relief as quickly as possible. This diet consists of 4 phases:

  • Phase 1 – Elimination: For about 2 weeks, you will be limited to your least reactive foods. This serves to calm down the immune system and create a baseline. Most people experience significant improvement in symptoms in this phase.
  • Phase 2 – Green: After the elimination phase, you slowly begin reintroducing foods that are categorized as non-reactive.
  • Phase 3 – Yellow: You will challenge moderately reactive foods. 
  • Phase 4 – Red: You will challenge your highest reactive food.

Summary

There are three main food reactions: allergy, intolerance, sensitivity.

  • Allergies are immune reactions that are immediate and sometimes life-threatening.
  • Intolerances occur when a food cannot be appropriately broken down in the body.
  • Sensitivities are complex immune reactions that can contribute to many chronic diseases like migraine and IBS.

Migraine attacks can be triggered by food sensitivities due to the release of chemical mediators, which directly cause inflammatory symptoms.

Food sensitivities are difficult to identify but it is possible to develop a sensitivity to any food, and reactions may be both dose-dependent and delayed by up to 72 hours. To efficiently and effectively determine your sensitivities, use the MRT Food Sensitivity test.

Among the other food sensitivity tests available, MRT is the most reliable. It is an end-point test measuring the release of inflammatory mediators, whereas many other tests only measure one of the many mechanisms by which reactions take place.

Following the MRT, you follow an individualized Lifestyle Eating and Performance (LEAP) protocol to get relief with support from a Certified LEAP Therapist. You will receive an interpretation of your results and individualized diet plan.

Want to discover your food sensitivities to improve your migraine? Book a free consultation with the Migraine Nutritionist, a Certified LEAP Therapist experienced in supporting people with migraine navigate food triggers.

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