Nocebo Response & Food Sensitivity


In Western medicine, we have largely ignored the connection between mind and body. Interventions are focused on fixing the body – whether this is through conventional treatments (surgery, pharmaceuticals, etc.) or complementary treatments (herbal supplements, adjustments, etc.). Focusing on symptoms and disease often leaves patients feeling worse.

Over the last few years, our understanding of and appreciation for the intimate connection between mind and body has grown. Our health beliefs/perceptions and the stories we tell ourselves have a profound influence on our physical function and quality of life.

Nocebo Response

You’ve probably heard of the placebo response. The nocebo response is the opposite.

  • Placebo Response – you’re more likely to feel better, if you think something is helping you.
  • Nocebo Response - you’re more likely to feel worse, if you think something is hurting you.

In the past, the placebo/nocebo response was thought to be subjective or “in your head.” However, recent research has shown that expectation creates powerful neurobiological changes.
In an interesting research study, individuals with asthma were randomized into two different groups. Both groups inhaled the same compound, but one group was told the compound could potentially increase symptoms, and the other group was told it might improve symptoms. The “negative message” group found the compound more irritating and had increased airway inflammation compared to the “positive message” group.

How Does the Nocebo Response Create or Perpetuate Food Sensitivity?

Negative perception and fear can change how our mind and body react to food. Negative food messages are everywhere on the internet. If you search for health information, you will quickly be overwhelmed by these messages. Unfortunately, these messages increase anxiety and profoundly change our perception of food.  If you have underlying concerns about food or have had negative experiences with food, you will be even more susceptible to absorbing these negative messages.  
Negative messages may sink into your subconscious and lead to negative thoughts. For example:  

  • “Potatoes are inflammatory.”,
  • “That food is high in histamine.”

Food then becomes a “danger signal” that triggers the fight-or-flight response and distressing symptoms. Over time, this can become an automatic mind/body reaction to certain foods and possibly food in general.
On the other hand, some food sensitivity reactions are primarily physical and are not affected by perception. It can be challenging to know which reactions are related to perception since the mind and body are intimately connected.

 What Can You Do About It?

Luckily, you can change your automatic, physical reactions to food. Here are some questions you can ask yourself to get started:

  • For the next few days, observe your thoughts about food. What are you telling yourself? Where did you get these ideas? Is it from what others (including the media) have told you or do you objectively have problems with the food? Consider keeping a diary.
  • Also, be aware of how you react to symptoms. Do symptoms send you into a panic mode?
  • How much health and food research are you doing? How is this research affecting your perception? Do you participate in online support groups? Are the messages helping or hindering your progress?
  • Are you blaming food for symptoms that may not be food related?

Undoing the negative food messages and helping your mind/body tolerate food again is a challenging journey. Consider reaching out for support.

September 2019

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