Symptom and personality profiles of young adults from a college student population with self-reported illness from foods and chemicals

J Am Coll Nutr. 1993 Dec;12(6):693-702. doi: 10.1080/07315724.1993.10718361.


Despite much debate over a presumptively somatic vs psychological etiology of nonatopic food and chemical sensitivities, little systematic research has addressed the issues. The present study investigated self-reported illness from several common foods (wheat, dairy, eggs) and chemicals (pesticide, car exhaust, paint, perfume, new carpet), symptom patterns, and psychological profiles of a sample of young adult college students (n = 490, age 19.4 +/- 2.4, 52% female/48% male). Subjects were divided into 4 groups on the basis of sample medians for frequency of illness from the foods (FI) and chemicals (CI); high FI with high CI (FI/CI), high FI alone, high CI alone, and NOILL (low FI and CI). FI was associated with more defensiveness (denial of negativity) while CI was linked with more shyness (avoidance of novelty). Women outnumbered men in all groups (FI/CI: 61%; FI: 80% CI: 55%) except the NOILL (40% women). Nevertheless, the FI/CI, FI, and/or CI groups still had significantly higher total symptom scores as well as more indigestion, headache, and memory trouble than did the NOILL group, even after depression, anxiety, shyness, defensiveness, and gender were covaried. The illness groups reported significantly more limitation of foods that mobilize endogenous opioids or generate exogenous opioids (sweets, fats, bread) as well as more illness from opiate drugs, small amounts of beverage alcohol, and late meals. Nasal symptoms from pollens or animals were more common in the FI/CI (42%) and CI (42%) than in FI (26%) or NOILL (28%) groups. Premenstrual tension syndrome and irritable bowel were also more common in the FI/CI group. The findings indicate that young adults outside the clinical setting who are relatively higher in FI and/or CI have distinctive symptom and psychological patterns. Covariate analyses suggest that important symptoms in FI and CI individuals such as indigestion, headache, and memory problems may occur in addition to rather than as simply part of emotional distress. The data are consistent with a previously hypothesized role of olfactory-limbic and hypothalamic pathways and with a time-dependent sensitization model for illness from foods and chemicals.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Anxiety
  • Defense Mechanisms
  • Depression
  • Drug Hypersensitivity / psychology*
  • Female
  • Food Hypersensitivity / psychology*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Personality*
  • Sex Characteristics
  • Shyness