By Dr. Shawna Darou, ND
You may be aware that certain foods don’t agree with your body. For example, you may have heartburn, indigestion, or gas after eating certain foods. What patients often miss, however, is the connection between food intolerances and the immune system. When the immune system is involved, there is inflammation.
Inflammation is the fuel behind most chronic health conditions: arthritis, fatigue, skin conditions, digestive complaints,… and the list goes on.
Dealing with inflammation is one of the most important keys to maintaining optimal health – it all starts with what you eat.
Paula is a 35 patient, who came to see me because she was experiencing low energy, vague digestive symptoms (including regular bloating), and borderline thyroid function. She didn’t understand why she felt so tired all the time when she ate well, slept at least seven hours per night, and didn’t feel stressed out.
In reviewing Paula’s history, she reported having had eczema and asthma as a child, which she outgrew by age 13. She was tired in her teens, but thought it was related to stress at school and puberty. Her fatigue had progressed, though, and in recent years Paula had been too tired to exercise regularly. Several members of Paula’s family have allergies, sinus problems, thyroid imbalance, and digestive issues.
Because of the presence of allergic conditions in Paula’s history and family, we started with a food intolerance test, along with blood work to check for vitamin B12 levels, iron stores, and thyroid function. There were several key findings on Paula’s testing: a high intolerance to both dairy and gluten, low vitamin B12 levels, and positive thyroid antibody levels. The thyroid antibodies indicate the presence of Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, and very common autoimmune condition causing low thyroid function.
I explained to Paula that the food intolerances had been going on through her whole life. The symptoms, however, had shifted over the years: First there was eczema, then asthma, and now she an autoimmune thyroid condition and digestive symptoms. All of these conditions are related to an imbalance in the immune system.
The good news is that food can be very powerful. If you remove high food intolerances, your immune system can rebalance, and allergic and autoimmune tendencies are reduced.
After six weeks on a gluten and dairy free diet, along with a vitamin B12 supplement and naturopathic thyroid support, Paula is feeling much better. She has the energy to exercise, she’s in a better mood, and her digestion has greatly improved!
Food intolerances are one of the top three issues that patients visit me for in my naturopathic practice.
Food intolerances can cause your immune system to get out of balance resulting in any of the following conditions:
- digestive upset (e.g. bloating, stomach pains, chronic constipation, diarrhea)
- frequent colds and flus
- frequent ear and tonsil infections in children
- congestion, snoring, chronic sinus problems
- seasonal allergies
- eczema, psoriasis, chronic hives
- autoimmune disease
- low energy, brain fog, difficulty concentrating, ADHD / ADD
- behavior problems in children
- mood disorder, especially depression
- weight gain or difficulty losing weight
- joint pain
What is a food intolerance? Is it the same as a food allergy?
A food intolerance is not the same as a food allergy:
- A food allergy is an immediate immune reaction, in which the body swells, itches or goes into shock very quickly after ingesting a food (usually within 10 minutes). These are foods that should be strictly avoided. Food allergies can be life-threatening and may require immediate medical treatment.
- A food intolerance causes a delayed response (six to 48 hours after consumption) and will never be life-threatening. The significance of food intolerances is that they increase inflammation in the body, which can lead to or worsen chronic illnesses.
It is important to determine which foods are problematic, because this is one way you can settle down an imbalanced immune system. By removing a reactive food from your diet, you will allow your body to rebalance on its own, without needing medication to do it for you.
The rise of food intolerances: Some possible explanations
Food intolerances are on the rise, and in the last 10 years in my practice, I have been diagnosing more patients with dairy, egg, and gluten-intolerances, in particular.
The following are some theories about why food intolerances are on the rise:
- Genetically-modified foods and changes to agricultural practices are prevalent. Our food is not what it used to be, meaning modern agricultural practices, especially in North America, have created foods that stimulate our immune system in different ways, creating more food intolerances. In fact, the rise in food allergies and intolerances parallels the introduction of genetically modified foods into our food supply.
- Environmental toxins are causing more stress to our bodies, which affects detoxification and immune function. When the immune system is already taxed by chemicals and toxins, there is less reserve, and more chance for food intolerances to occur.
- Our intestinal tracts are often out of balance due to widespread overuse of antibiotics, which results in an irritated intestinal lining that is more susceptible to food intolerance.
- Many diets are overly concentrated on a few staple foods (wheat, corn, soy, dairy, egg) without sufficient variation. Over-eating the same foods, especially if there is a mild intolerance to begin with, can create larger food intolerances over time.
Do you have any food intolerances?
Complete this checklist.
If you answer “Yes” to any of these questions, it is likely that you have at least one food intolerance.
- Did you suffer from colic as a baby?
- Did you have frequent ear infections or frequent tonsillitis as a child (i.e. more than three times)?
- Did you have eczema (an itchy skin condition, usually in the elbow and knee creases as a child)?
- Do you have eczema (an itchy skin condition, usually on the hands and face as an adult)?
- Did you or do you have asthma?
- Do you have seasonal allergies (e.g. ragweed, hayfever, pollen allergies)?
- Do you have any food allergies (i.e. ones that result in anaphylaxis –an immediate reaction of itching, swelling or hives)?
- Do you suffer from any autoimmune diseases? (e.g. rheumatoid arthritis, hypothyroidism, Grave’s disease, Lupus, Type I diabetes, etc.)
- Do you have endometriosis?
- Do you experience frequent digestive upset? (e.g. Irritable bowel, bloating, gas)
- Do you have difficulty losing weight, in spite of a healthy diet?
- Do you have chronic nasal or sinus congestion?
- Do you snore?
- Do you struggle with your mood?
- Have you had acne since you were teenager or in your early 20s without signs of hormone imbalance?
- Do allergies run in your family?
What are the most common food intolerances?
The top 11 food intolerances are:
- dairy (milk, yogurt, cheese, butter, ice cream)
- egg (egg white, especially)
- gluten (which is contained in wheat, spelt, kamut, rye, barley, and sometimes oats)
- other nuts, especially almonds
- some fruits (especially banana, citrus, pineapple, cranberry)
- kidney beans and other legumes
The good news is that by taking charge of your nutrition, many health conditions can actually be reversed.
Here are some common examples:
- I have seen childhood eczema clear up as quickly as one month after identifying a gluten-intolerance.
- I have had many patients whose autoimmune diseases have gone into long-term remission, when they have avoided foods that they are highly intolerant to.
- The first thing I investigate when I see a patient with long-term acne without a clear hormone imbalance is possible food intolerances, and the result is clear skin after two to three months.
- In children with recurrent ear infections, there is almost always an underlying dairy intolerance causing congestion in the Eustachian tubes.
- Most patients’ seasonal allergies will either go away or be dramatically diminished, when they avoid their intolerant foods.
- A fantastic starting point for a weight loss program is to first identify food intolerances, since lowering overall body inflammation results in more efficient weight loss.
Food intolerance and weight gain: a common connection
There is a strong connection between food intolerance and weight gain. If you are struggling with losing weight or have been gaining weight, you may have underlying food intolerances.
The reason for this is that weight gain and difficulty losing weight, are amplified by the level of inflammation in the body.
If you have chronic inflammation, it will affect your stress hormone levels and blood sugar levels, which can in turn lead to insulin resistance. Insulin resistance is an early pre-diabetic condition, in which the body overreacts to high carbohydrate foods and releases too much insulin. In this case, too many starches and sugars in the diet result in weight gain, fatigue, and a risk of diabetes in the future.
To effectively lose weight and improve your metabolism, you need both a healthy diet that supports blood sugar balance and a plan to decrease inflammation in your body. The link between weight loss and food intolerances is the reason that people very efficiently lose weight on any type of naturopathic cleanse!
The gastrointestinal tract is one of key sources of inflammation in the body. Food intolerances and an imbalance in the gut ecology will result in a tremendous amount of inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract. Improving the gut ecology (i.e. the balance of healthy bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract) by supplementing with probiotics or healthy bacteria, and clearing out any bacteria, yeast or parasites, that don’t belong will help to remove this source of inflammation, which may ultimately be contributing to weight gain. (You can read more about healthy gut flora in the next section)
How do I test for food intolerances?
The most accurate and simple way to test for food intolerances is with a blood test for immunoglobulin G (IgG) or delayed hypersensitivity reactions. This is a simple blood test, which can be completed at home or in naturopathic doctor’s office, and then is sent to a lab. It measures antibody levels (or the body’s immune reaction) to a panel of 96 foods, and is accurate in detecting high food intolerances.
The one exception that sometimes does not always show up clearly on a standard food intolerance test is gluten. Gluten intolerance is more difficult to detect with testing, as there are several immune reactions that may be occurring. The addition of a celiac blood test is recommended to more thoroughly check for reactions to gluten.
An alternative way of testing for food intolerance is with an elimination diet. An elimination diet involves removing all of the most common food intolerances from a patient’s diet for a period of one month. Following this, these foods are reintroduced one at a time, observing for any possible reactions.
Many people choose to do an elimination diet, because it’s something they can do at home without a blood test. It is less costly, but requires more time and more diligence to observe and record symptoms, than a simple blood test; however, it can sometimes be confusing if there are multiple food intolerances.
- If you have identified a strong likelihood of food intolerances, the first step is for you to get tested or to do an elimination diet to determine your food intolerances. The next step is for you to strictly eliminate your intolerant foods for three to four months. This will allow your immune system and gut to readjust and heal. You may find that after this time, you are able to tolerate some foods in moderation (e.g. eggs baked into a recipe or occasional goat cheese in a salad). If you have multiple intolerances (more than two or three), it is likely that you also have intestinal permeability or leaky gut syndrome. The next section on gastrointestinal health explains how to deal with these conditions. In most of these cases, once the leaky gut syndrome has been repaired, you will have fewer intolerances.