Food factors: allergies or intolerance?

By on June 10, 2014

Natural Medicine with Dr. Monique

Jackson Hole, Wyoming – Today people are becoming more and more aware of the effects food has on their bodies.

I discovered this relationship for the first time when I visited my Uncle John, a naturopathic physician and chiropractor in Melbourne, Australia, 27 years ago. I fell right into his way of life, including his diet. We ate muffins made of millet, buckwheat, flax seeds, apples and currants. Dinner was a skinless organic chicken and a salad of beets, carrots and apples. Coming from my ski town bartending job and living on bar food, it was a comprehensive shock to the system.

His diet was gluten, dairy and chemical free. I felt fine upon arriving in Australia, but after detoxing on this type of diet for two weeks I realized how tired I had been, even at the age of 21. Now I had energy! A few years later, I was in naturopathic medical school myself.

Food allergies are different from food sensitivity or intolerances, which causes understandable confusion. One of the first things to know is that our bodies have a variety of immunological reactions. An allergic reaction is usually immediate and happens within a few hours of ingesting the offensive food. This is mediated by IgE (immunoglobulin E), usually causing anaphylaxis or hives. Shellfish, peanuts, bee stings and the like are often associated with this reaction. This is best tested at the allergist’s office via the intradermal “pinprick” method.

Many individuals are not having symptoms as severe as anaphylactic and/or allergic reactions, but don’t feel well when they eat certain foods. This is food intolerance or food sensitivity. The symptoms can include sinusitis, rhinitis, digestive disturbance, acne, eczema, headaches and many more. The gold standard in finding out which food is responsible for these adverse reactions is the elimination-reintroduction diet. This is when you eliminate specific foods for a period of two to three weeks and then reintroduce food one at a time to see if there is a reaction.

The elimination-reintroduction method is time consuming, so people often opt for an IgG blood test (immunoglobulin G) or the lymphocyte response assay (LRA) by ELISA/ACT test to evaluate the body’s response to food. While the IgG test has been controversial in the scientific community, it has proven to be clinically effective for my patients during my 18 years of practice. I use the LRA test specifically for inflammation and autoimmune disease.

Is it always the food or is it another factor? Let’s take a slice of bread for instance. We may be sensitive to the wheat, but the culprit could be the yeast, a preservative or coloring in the bread. Is it the food, or is it because our body has an enzyme deficiency (lactose intolerance), bacterial or yeast overgrowth, psychological factors and/or celiac disease? There are many variables responsible for health and therefore there are many variables responsible for disease and discomfort.

Why are our bodies more reactive? There are many variables that could be contributing to the increased reactivity. The most prevalent one is known as the Hygiene Hypothesis. The Hygiene Hypothesis states that excessive cleanliness interrupts the normal development of the immune system, and this change leads to an increase in allergies. You often hear the Hygiene Hypothesis referenced in discussions of the overuse of anti-bacterial soaps and lotion. We just may be too clean!

Increased intestinal permeability could also make us more reactive to food. This refers to damage of the intestinal wall allowing undesirable substances like bacteria and undigested proteins and fat to enter the blood stream and create an inflammatory reaction.

We can feel better by finding out which foods cause a reaction in our body and decreasing the burden. This can be done with a diet far less restrictive than my Uncle John’s. We can build up the body’s immune system with supplements like probiotics that will help “beef up” our microbiome. We can even heal the lining of the digestive tract with antioxidants, mucosal nutrients, digestive enzymes, probiotics and dietary fiber.

Our bodies will heal. We just have to provide the right environment.

Monique Lai, ND, is an alternative health expert.

At her Jackson Hole family practice, she works with patients to restore their health. Dr. Monique obtained her doctorate in naturopathic medicine from Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine in 1996 and has been in the valley for 14 years.


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