How to Move Past Food Sensitivities
by Kathleen Barnes
Complaints of digestive upsets, brain fog, headaches, relentless food cravings and unrelieved stress appear to be at epidemic levels these days.
“These symptoms may be part of newfound awareness of the wide-ranging and seemingly unrelated health problems caused by food sensitivities and intolerances, which are different from food allergies,” explains microbiologist Kiran Krishnan, of Chicago.
Food allergies seem to be plaguing America’s children now more than in the past. We know that peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, once standard lunchbox fare, have become a no-no. They’re often outlawed by schools to protect the students that experience extreme peanut allergies.
The symptoms of food allergies in adults and children, often including hives, rashes and itching, can range from being annoying to life threatening. For extremely sensitive people, the tiniest fragment of a peanut or a bee sting, exposure to latex gloves or certain medications like penicillin can cause such a sudden strong allergic reaction that it can result in anaphylaxis, which can make breathing passages swell shut. If untreated, such extreme allergies can even prove fatal, which is why people with severe allergies carry the antidote epinephrine (adrenaline) with them. .
Food allergies are diagnosed by blood and/or skin testing under the supervision of a medical professional, usually a doctor of medicine, osteopathy or naturopathy. Effective treatment, which must be customized to the individual, typically entails avoidance of allergy triggers.
Fortunately, food allergies that trigger such a dramatic, fast, immune response are fairly rare, particularly in adults.
Some More Common Issues
“Most of what we’re seeing today is an uptick in food sensitivities and intolerances, terms that are often used interchangeably to describe foods that are not digested well and can challenge the immune system,” says Solana Beach, California, nutrition and fitness expert JJ Virgin, author of The Virgin Diet.
Newark, Delaware, medical doctor and allergist Junfang Jiao, Ph.D., attests to increased levels of testing for food allergies and sensitivities in recent years. “I can’t say there are more allergies or sensitivities, but more doctors are aware of the wide-ranging symptoms and more people are getting referred for testing,” he reports.
Many experts agree on at least one underlying cause behind the trend—a widely studied condition called leaky gut, characterized by intestinal permeability. Microscopic pinholes in an unhealthy small intestine can allow undigested nutrients to pass through intestinal walls, triggering mild immune responses, inflammation and, potentially, the onset of some diseases.
Theories of what causes leaky gut are diverse and sometimes contradictory but experts recommend consulting a medical professional if one suffers from food sensitivities. Each individual is unique, so there is no blanket “solution” for everyone.
Dysbiosis: Leaky gut is often caused by an imbalance in “good” and “bad” intestinal bacteria, sometimes called dysbiosis, says Krishnan. It can be brought on by the use of antibiotics, antibiotic residues in meats and dairy products or a diet high in sugar and processed foods.
Most interesting, he believes, is the discovery that glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s weed killer Roundup used on genetically modified (GMO) corn and soy crops, contributes to dysbiosis, verified by Massachusetts Institute of Technology scientists in a study published in Interdisciplinary Toxicology. They concluded with a “plea to world governments to reconsider policies regarding the safety of glyphosate residues in foods.”
GMOs: While this issue has been less widely analyzed, a 1996 study published in the Journal of Applied Microbiology found that the Bacillus thuringiensis toxin added to Monsanto’s GMO corn crops to kill pests is not destroyed during human digestion. Danish researchers at the Royal Veterinary and Agricultural University suggested it may damage cells of the intestinal lining.
Gluten: “Gluten causes leaky gut,” says Port Jefferson, New York, naturopathic doctor Doni Wilson, author of The Stress Remedy, an admittedly controversial opinion based on her review of related scientific literature. “Whether you are sensitive to it or not, gluten increases the production of zonulin, which can result in damage to intestinal walls and cause the cells on the outside of the intestines to set off an immune response to anything that passes through. In this condition, what we’re eating—cheese, milk, eggs, corn, soy—is leaking through the gut lining, triggering an immune response and potentially creating multiple food sensitivities.”
Wilson also notes that in her clinical experience, only about half of her patients with gluten sensitivities complain of digestive issues. “I’ve found that gluten causes the immune cells on the outside of the small intestine to affect the nervous system, causing headaches, anxiety, depression and insomnia,” she says. Her findings are backed by research from the Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Celiac Research and Italy’s University of Catania. The same researchers confirm that non-celiac gluten sensitivity or intolerance can also foster depression; a University of Cincinnati study published in the journal Headache links gluten and headaches.
Other proteins in wheat can be problematic, advises Fiona McCulloch, a Toronto doctor of naturopathy, citing a study presented at the annual European Gastroenterology Conference, in Vienna, last October. The report showed that a family of proteins called amylase trypsin inhibitors can lead to the development of inflammation in tissues beyond the gut, including the lymph nodes, kidneys, spleen and brain.
Glyphosate residues can be a factor in gluten intolerance. Although wheat crops produced in the U.S. are not yet genetically modified, many non-organic wheat crops are sprayed with glyphosate to promote rapid drying, according to the Environmental Working Group.
Inadequate digestive enzymes: Lactose intolerance is the most common result of missing digestive enzymes like lactase, according to the Mayo Clinic, in Rochester, Minnesota. Avoiding milk products may relieve digestive distress for some.
Eliminate Items, Then Challenge
Most experts believe the easiest way to deal with food sensitivities is to stop eating the food in question. The so-called “elimination and challenge” diet has been in use for decades, is effective, free and addresses the foods responsible for common food intolerances, says Virgin.
Simply completely avoid the food of concern for at least three weeks, then eat a small amount of it and catalog the results. For some people, it may only take a couple of hours for symptoms to return after eating a piece of bread, cup of milk, an egg or bit of tofu.
Virgin’s seven-food challenge is a bit more rigorous, but improves feelings of general well-being so readily that many people don’t even want to bring back the eliminated foods because they feel so much better, she says. Her three-week diet completely eliminates the most common food sensitivity triggers: gluten-containing foods (largely wheat), dairy, eggs, soy, corn, peanuts, sugar and artificial sweeteners.
“When I say eliminate these foods 100 percent, I mean it,” cautions Virgin. “You need to give your immune system at least that much time to cool off.” She adds, “You can do anything like this for just three weeks.”
Virgin also recommends the elimination diet for weight loss because it helps overcome food cravings triggered by the immune system response and leptin resistance, leveraging the hormone that turns off the body’s hunger signals, a finding confirmed by independent studies performed by Sweden’s Lund University and Italy’s University of Palermo. She’s also documented other positive effects through her own research and experience with participants in her programs, including improvements in energy, focus, joint pain, skin clarity and bloating, all in the designated short time frames.
People with food sensitivities may be able to tolerate occasional indulgences in their trigger foods once they’ve healed their digestive systems, notes Krishnan. Probiotics can help, especially those encapsulated in spores so they can pass through the barrage of stomach acid and reach the small intestine where they are most needed.
Krishnan’s research, to be published this spring, showed that half of otherwise healthy young people suffering from leaky gut had a dramatic reduction of symptoms by taking a spore-forming probiotic Bacillus indicus product for 30 days. After the healing period, sensitive people may be able to eat small amounts of certain foods with the assistance of dietary aids and supplements, adds McCulloch.
Get dirty: Johns Hopkins University research has shown that kids raised in an excessively hygienic environment experience much higher rates of allergies and sensitivities. University of Wisconsin researchers found that youths growing up in households that are less than obsessively sanitary among four or five other people and dogs helps strengthen and challenge their immune systems as they mature. Adults need to challenge their immune systems, too, says Krishnan.
Eat organic and fermented foods: A widely varied diet helps spread out the immune system challenges of trigger foods. Organic foods don’t contain glyphosate and other potentially harmful chemicals and fermented foods contain digestive enzymes.
Eat prebiotics: Raw onions, garlic, leeks and asparagus are prebiotics. They help feed probiotic bacteria and improve gut health.
Block sensitivity triggers: Many people with lactose intolerance are able to consume dairy products if they use lactase, the enzyme that helps digest lactose. Similarly, some people with gluten intolerance find they can eat moderate amounts of wheat products with protein supplements like lectin, carb blockers and digestive enzymes that help break down the gluten molecules, according to Virgin.
Supplements that might help: Glucomannan (konjac or elephant yam fiber) contributes to a feeling of fullness and stabilizes blood sugar, says McCulloch. She also recommends the amino acid L-glutamine and digestive enzymes to assist in gut healing.
Kathleen Barnes is the author of numerous natural health books. Connect at KathleenBarnes.com.