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

Iris R. Bell, Gary E. Schwartz, Julie M. Peterson, Diane Amend

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

51 Scopus citations


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 (Cl): High FI with high Cl (FI/CI), high FI alone, high Cl alone, and NOILL (low FI and Cl). FI was associated with more defensiveness (denial of negativity) while Cl was linked with more shyness (avoidance of novelty). Women outnumbered men in all groups (FI/CI: 61%; FI: 80%; Cl: 55%) except the NOILL (40% women). Nevertheless, the FI/Cl, FI, and/or Cl 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 Cl (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 Cl have distinctive symptom and psychological patterns. Covariate analyses suggest that important symptoms in FI and Cl 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.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)693
Number of pages1
JournalJournal of the American College of Nutrition
Issue number6
StatePublished - Dec 1 1993


  • Anxiety
  • Cacosmia
  • Chemical sensitivity
  • Defensiveness
  • Depression
  • Food sensitivity
  • Irritable bowel
  • Olfactory
  • Opioid
  • Shyness
  • Time-dependent sensitization
  • Ventromedial hypothalamus

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Medicine (miscellaneous)
  • Nutrition and Dietetics


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