Supersensitivity in Food Sensitive People
By Joan Breakey
(Specialist food sensitivity dietitian)
In “Sensitivity and Childhood Trauma” edited by William Wilkie 2009
Published by The Amanda Flynn Charity Pty Ltd c/o Kenlynn Properties Aust Pty Ltd
When I was growing up I suppose I was like most people. I thought the amount of light, noise, smell, touch, and taste that I find acceptable was much the same as everybody else‟s. Perhaps, with a dietitian‟s interest in food, I did acknowledge that there were people we described as having a “cast iron stomach” and at the other end of the spectrum those who were food gourmets.
However, when I began working with a low chemical diet I met people with a wide variety of sensitivity to all sensory input, and in a variety of body functions such as their tolerance of pain and temperature change. I began to reflect on phrases and words we use in normal conversation that took on a new meaning in this group. These include being “Driven to distraction!” “rubbed up the wrong way!” “left with a bad taste in my mouth”, “thin skinned”, and “touchy”.
I have pulled together ideas that combined describe the picture I found: the phenomenon of food sensitivity and its interrelationship with supersensitivity.
Food sensitivity is the body’s reaction to various chemicals in food such that an adverse reaction occurs. These reactions can include becoming hyperactive, getting a rash, migraine or irritable bowel pain. Reactions occur in a variety of parts of the body.
We can say that food sensitivity [like the closely related condition of allergy] is a multi-system disorder. This means that the symptoms can occur in any of the body systems: the skin, the lungs, the digestive system or others. This will be shown by the variety of distressing symptoms mentioned in the following discussion.
Target organ sensitivity is the way we describe which organ is targeted for sensitivity in a particular person. One person may have a sensitive brain and have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder [ADHD] or headaches, another may have a sensitive skin with eczema and yet another a sensitive gut with irritable bowel syndrome [IBS]. Just as allergy is said to be a hypersensitivity reaction to a food protein, food sensitivity is a hypersensitivity reaction to a variety of chemicals in food.
Food sensitive people are those whose various symptoms improve when they use a diet reducing a group of suspect food chemicals which include food additive colour and flavour, most preservatives, natural salicylates and amines, and natural and added monosodium glutamate, as well as smells. There is some variation in just which of these suspect chemicals each food sensitive person reacts to. We call this
target substance sensitivity. The process of diet investigation to determine each person‟s diet is described in my book “Are You Food Sensitive?”
Supersensitivity as I am using it in this discussion is the phenomenon whereby a person is more sensitive than normal to input into their various senses, to the extent that it often interferes with normal function. A child may be so sensitive to his mother’s vacuum cleaner noise that he becomes very distressed, an infant may not get to sleep unless all forms of light entering the room are blocked, a child may find a particular garment so scratchy that he stays restless and irritable.
In food sensitive people this supersensitivity may also result in adverse physical symptoms such that particular smells produce migraine, particular noises result in distraction from work, or scratchy clothes produce a rash. The concept of supersensitivity grew from the word „supertasters‟: a group who were being researched for their increased sensitivity to taste. This resulted in their being more discriminating about food than those in the normal range.
I realised that I had met them, in the very fussy eaters I was seeing, and I had also met supersmellers, and also children and adults who were supersensitive to touch, light and sound. Supersensitivity occurs in other groups such as those with autism. Of course there are also those whose supersensitivity is outside the normal range but is constructive rather than interfering, such as in wine tasters, musicians, gourmet chefs, or even teachers who seem to have “eyes in the back of their heads‟! These are seen both in the food sensitive group and in the population generally.
Supersensitivity in the food sensitive people
Here I am describing how supersensitivity shows up in the important but little known particular group who are food sensitive, as they are the group I have worked with and studied for over 30 years. Initially I worked with children with ADHD, some of whom would now also be described as having mild autism spectrum disorder [ASD]. Then as diet helped with other symptoms in their families, and other symptoms in other families, I found that the same sensory sensitivities occurred.
The first sensitivity noticed was fussy eaters
Food sensitive children were often reported to be very fussy eaters. When I investigated this further I found that they were supersensitive to various aspects of the food. They had a preferred range of tolerances in what they ate, and refused food if it moved out of that range.
The reason why this was important was that, unlike most children who will eat food if it is a bit different to the usual food, as long as they are very hungry, the food sensitive children would rather eat nothing than have the different food. And they were very vocal about why they would not eat saying things like “I won‟t eat that, it‟s too scratchy!!‟ or “I won‟t eat that, it smells yuk!”
This verbalisation was very helpful. I learned the various factors that they were fussy about and so could help parents realise that a child may be developing his eating well, for instance with regard to change in taste, temperature or thickness, but
may be slower with texture increase. I then learned to apply this information to those who could not verbalise the problem – babies.
Supersensitivity producing “eating delay”
Babies in food sensitive families take much longer to progress from warm, smooth, thin milk to the variety of food tastes, textures, temperatures that we expect a small child to manage. The parents noted what foods the baby was managing and we could then see what was progressing more slowly in a particular child. The parents may have been frustrated because their baby‟s development in this area was much slower than their other children or those of friends.
I could help the parents see what to change and to begin change in only one small factor at a time. If they wished to introduce a new taste, they needed to do this very gradually while not changing the temperature, texture, or thickness of the food. I gradually realised that eating development is a progression, just as motor and speech are. In the normal population the progression is as we expect but in food sensitive people it can be slower, very much slower in some.
It is as if the supersensitivity is producing delay in normal eating development. So we needed to change our thinking from “My child won‟t eat that” to “my child is not ready to handle that food yet”, just as we would say “My child is not ready to ride a bike yet”.
Target sensory sensitivity
Initially I thought the supersensitivity applied only to eating, but gradually I realised that it applied more broadly. Food sensitive people were supersensitive to their environment in a variety of ways. One child may be very sensitive to one or two particular noises, another aversive to some particular smells. This variation in sensitivities also occurred in food sensitive adults. It is important to emphasise that food sensitive people are not supersensitive to every aspect of their environment nor in all their senses, nor to all input via one sense. The concept of target sensory sensitivity incorporates this idea.
Examples of supersensitivities
Following are some factors that food sensitive people are sensitive to.
They are described in greater detail in my book Are You Food Sensitive and in relation to infants in my book Fussy Babies
Since beginning work in this area I am now more aware that there is a normal range of tolerance in the population, but that the supersensitivities in the food sensitive people are often well outside this range. This variation occurs in just how sensitive they are, and in what symptoms the sensitivity affects. While the sensitivities I describe are of interest as they are quite unusual, there are many others who are somewhere between these and the normal range.
- Air humidity
- Touch and texture
- Emotional sensitivity
- Gut sensitivity
- Lung sensitivity
- Pain sensitivity
- The Total Body Load
See my review article, and articles including “Diet and mood” and What‟s smell got to do with it?” on my home pages http://www.ozemail.com.au/~breakey and http://www.dietinvestigation.com and my book “Are You Food Sensitive”?