The concept and reality of food allergies and sensitivities has been growing in the past few years. As a naturopathic doctor, I see food sensitivities very often in clinical practice. Despite the awareness in natural and holistic health circles, I have recently started to hear more and more people talk about how food sensitivities (also referred to as intolerances) are adversely impacting their health. Food intolerances play a central role in many symptoms, but how it affects our body and causes those symptoms is not fully understood by most people. The goal of this article is to shed some light on the mechanism of food sensitivities and how they can affect our bodies in often-bizarre ways.
It is important to understand the difference between food intolerances and allergies. Most people are familiar with the concept of allergies where substances such as peanuts or bee stings can cause rashes, hives, and swelling of the throat, which requires emergency treatment. Food sensitivities or intolerances do not cause this acute and severe reaction but rather cause a low grade, chronic effect that is responsible for a wide range of symptoms. Some of the most common symptoms are indigestion, diarrhea, frequent colds, headaches, bloating, chronic sinus congestion, fatigue and acne. A well-known example of food sensitivity is lactose intolerance. In this condition, the body can’t digest lactose (due to a missing enzyme), which causes bloating, diarrhea and intestinal cramping.
There is a large, growing body of scientific research that has connected food allergies to numerous diseases. Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) are two of the most well researched examples. When eliminating gluten (a protein commonly found in wheat), patients with IBD and IBS have shown significant improvements. Other diseases that have been linked to food intolerances are autism, acne vulgaris, and a number of mental disorders such as schizophrenia.
A key concept to understanding why food intolerance has such a powerful and wide ranging effect is the connection of our digestive tract and immune system. The majority of the immune system is located just outside of our gastrointestinal (GI) tract. The human body has evolved this way strategically since our GI tract is one of the most common ways that foreign invaders, such as bacteria and viruses, can enter the body. Food sensitivities or intolerances cause chronic irritation and inflammation of our digestive tracts, which causes our immune systems to be overstimulated and become sensitized to normally harmless food particles. Specific substances have been linked to promote food intolerances. Benzoates, sugar, fat, hydrogenated vegetables oils, MSG, nitrites, sulfites, salicylates (aspirin) and tartazine (food colouring) all have been linked to food intolerances.
This chronic inflammation can also start a viscous cycle that promotes a “leaky gut” which further allows more food proteins to irritate and sensitize immune cells. Leaky gut is a term used to describe our intestinal wall no longer doing its job in preventing unwanted substances from entering the body. Now larger food molecules and proteins can enter the blood stream and cause the immune system to attack them as if they were a bacteria or virus. Sometimes these food proteins can look very similar to proteins normally found in the body (i.e. in joints or blood vessels) and the immune system, just trying to do it job, ends up associating the body’s tissues with foreign invaders and attacks those healthy cells. This partly explains why food intolerances can cause symptoms such as headaches and joint pain.
The obvious question is, how do you identify your food allergies and resolve your symptoms? The simple answer is to avoid the most common food allergens to stop this cycle of inflammation and damage. The most common food allergens are dairy products, soy, corn, eggs, oranges, beef, pork, and gluten/wheat are also part of this infamous group. Most food elimination diets will start by eliminating the foods listed above and most people find that it resolves the majority of their symptoms. However, a person can have a food intolerance to any food. To identify what specific food intolerances you may have there are two options. The most cost-effective but also time-consuming option is to go through a full food elimination diet. This usually takes a month to identify which foods cause symptoms. The second option is get a food intolerance blood test, which assesses 96 common foods. It does cost money to complete the test but it avoids the time intensive elimination diet process.
Food intolerances are a very common condition that many people experience and can be responsible for many symptoms. Identifying which foods you are sensitive to is essential to eliminate the root cause. This can take commitment, effort and patience. Most people give up once they need to remove common foods they are use to eating. It is also important to remove substances such as refined sugar, food preservatives and dyes. Only once you remove these obstacles can you allow your GI tract to heal and your symptoms to resolve. Once you eliminate the offending foods there are a number of natural things that can help heal your digestive lining and offset the effects of the allergic inflammation.
Stay tuned for part two where I will review these options!