by Dr. Will Cole

The food we eat can be either the most powerful medicine or the biggest force behind our health problems. In order to function optimally, our bodies rely on a variety of nutrients gained from clean, whole-food sources. Sometimes though, a person can find themselves still struggling through debilitating symptoms. Underlying food sensitivities can be to blame for this and make it so even the healthiest foods cause digestive problems and runaway inflammation.

Understanding food sensitivities.

So how do we begin addressing food sensitivities? Well, to start, it’s important to distinguish the three main types of food reactivity:

  1. Food allergies: These are linked to the immune system and can provoke the most immediate, and not to mention serious, reactions. The most common symptoms include itching, hives, rashes, anaphylaxis (difficulty breathing), and swelling. This type of food allergy is irreversible.
  2. Food intolerances: Usually the result of enzyme deficiencies, these don’t involve the immune system directly. Instead, these can occur when your digestive system is irritated or can’t digest certain foods.
  3. Food sensitivities: It can be more difficult to pinpoint the exact reason behind sensitivities. For some people, eating small amounts of these foods don’t produce any symptoms. However, when symptoms do arise, they are less intense than allergies but can be just as debilitating. Symptoms can include brain fog, inflammation, migraines, bloating, and other digestive problems.

As Hippocrates says “All disease begins in the gut.” A weak microbiome can lead to increased inflammation and in turn, a cascade of other health problems – food intolerances and sensitivities included. For example, when your gut is compromised, like in leaky gut syndrome, foods end up passing through the gut lining into the bloodstream. This can put your immune system in overdrive and lead to increased inflammation throughout your body. With this hyper-awareness, your immune system ends up reacting to almost any food that passes through, including healthy foods like spinach.

The Inflammation Spectrum

Leaky gut syndrome and other conditions are really just the end scale of a larger inflammation spectrum. This spectrum can be broken down into three stages:

  1. Silent autoimmunity: There are no symptoms but there are positive antibody labs.
  2. Autoimmune reactivity: When there are symptoms as well as positive antibody labs.
  3. Autoimmune disease: When there’s enough body destruction to be diagnosed with a specific condition.

For example, the autoimmune condition celiac disease, is ultimately the end stage of gluten sensitivity. About 10 percent of people with celiac disease have noticeable digestive symptoms but still deal with other symptoms like acne. Because of this, only about 5 percent of true celiacs are actually diagnosed leaving about 20 percent of people unknowingly struggling with gluten intolerance.

Healing the gut

From eating gluten just one time, it can take almost 6 months to bring down autoimmune-inflammation antibodies. This is a big deal! There are multiple factors that can influence gut health such as inflammatory foods, stress, and medications therefore a lot needs to be considered when it comes into healing the digestive system. While I usually see monthly improvements in my patients it takes a full two years before dramatic and sustainable changes happen. It takes the average adult gut between 18 to 24 months to completely heal. Remember, this is a journey, not a race. It took years to get to this point of destruction and will also take time to repair.

Around 80 percent of your immune system is located in your gut. It only makes sense then that by healing your gut could bring relief to food sensitivities. Now, that doesn’t mean that every person and every food sensitivity will be completely healed forever – but it doesn’t have to be a life sentence!

1. Get lab work done.

To begin the healing process, it’s important to find your baseline. If you think food sensitivities are a problem for you, labs will help determine both the cause and specific sensitivity. This will allow you to make sure you’re addressing everything necessary for healing. Here are the just a few of the labs that I run for patients at my functional medicine clinic:

  • Microbiome labs: This will show you whether or not you have a bacterial imbalance and if you need to boost your good bacteria. Research has shown that imbalances can dysregulate the immune system and contribute to food sensitivites.
  • Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth: SIBO occurs when bacteria overgrows up from the large intestines into the small intestines. This bacteria ends up eating the foods you eat and will ferment in the wrong area leading to gas, bloating, and if untreated, leaky gut syndrome.
  • Leaky gut labs: These blood tests will measure antibody levels to show if there has been damage to the gut lining.
  • Zonulin and occludin: These two proteins control gut permeability. Antibodies indicate damage to intestinal tight junctions.
  • Actomyosin: This shows if there has been destruction of gut lining.
  • Lipopolysaccharides: Antibodies to these these bacterial endotoxins in your gut can indicate leaky gut syndrome.
  • Histamine intolerance: During an allergic reaction your body releases chemicals known as histamines. This is a normal part of a healthy immune system. Certain foods naturally contain histamine or trigger the release of histamine. Some people though, can have an overload of histamine due to a deficiency or dysfunction of the enzymes that break down histamine. This is known as histamine intolerance. It can create what is called a “pseudoallergy,” – an allergic reaction without an allergen.
  • Cross-reactivity: This occurs when your immune system “tags” certain gluten-free foods with gluten antibodies. This molecular mimicry is almost like a case of mistaken identity causing your body to treat these foods like gluten. So if you have already gone gluten-free but are still experiencing symptoms you may have cross-reactivity to blame. This type of food sensitivity may not be able to be reversed.

2. Try an elimination diet.

This is my gold standard tool for discovering food sensitivities. Removing certain foods for a period of time and then slowly reintroducing them will reduce inflammation, give your gut a healing break, and will give you insight into which foods cause a reaction for you.

3. Make sure to rotate your food.

Eating a variety of vegetables, meats, and fruits will give your body a diverse range of nutrients and will also keep your immune system balanced as you start to reintroduce certain foods.

4. Amp up your gut healing.

If you don’t work on healing your gut, it doesn’t matter how many elimination diets you do. Ultimately you’ll be left fighting the same symptoms over and over. Once you have discovered which foods you need to be eliminating (at least for the time being), you can begin to incorporate these next-level gut healers:

  • Bone broth: This soothing food medicine will bring healing to damaged gut lining.
  • Probiotics: Supplements in addition to natural probiotics like fermented foods (think kimchi and sauerkraut) will restore any imbalances in your microbiome by bringing good bacteria into your gut.
  • Intermittent fasting: I often see great success with this functional medicine tool in my clinic. When you go for short periods of time without eating, you give your digestion a much-needed rest.
  • Cooked foods: By eating only cooked foods you decrease the amount of work your digestive system needs to do to break the food down.

So, once you have worked on your gut health you may find that certain problem foods are now tolerable. However, it is important to remember that certain foods are naturally inflammatory so even though you can handle them, it’s good to still only eat them in moderation.

If you want to learn more about your own health case please check out our free health evaluation. We offer in person as well as phone and webcam consultations for people across the country and around the world.

Photo: Stocksy

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