Life Extension Magazine September 2010
What’s Really Making You Sick?
By Lauren Russel, ND, and Jonathan V. Wright, MD
Do you regularly suffer from headaches, insomnia, stomach upset, constipation, or diarrhea—but can’t seem to get lasting relief? Have you gone from one doctor to another for nagging or painful “mystery” symptoms—only to find that none of them has been able to tell you exactly what’s wrong, much less come up with an effective treatment?
You’re not alone. It is estimated that anywhere from 45-60% of the general population struggles with an extraordinary range of symptoms whose causes can’t be readily identified.1, 2 You may be one of them.
Before you give up altogether, though, take heart: your health “problem” may not be the problem at all. In reality, your symptoms may be signs that something in your diet is making you feel sick.
Unfortunately, identifying which of the many foods you regularly consume may be causing your symptoms, or the specific natural or artificial compound contained in any of those foods, can be like trying to find a needle in a haystack. There are as many food allergies and sensitivities as there are symptoms. And until recently, the available detection methods have been rudimentary at best.
The good news is that advances in individualized blood testing now enable you and your doctor to zero in on the compounds causing your problem. With the results in hand, you can methodically and definitively eliminate them from your diet.
In this article, you will discover the multitude of health conditions that food sensitivities can cause. You will learn about the underlying mechanisms at the core of your body’s response to certain foods. You will also find out how a cutting-edge diagnostic test can help you uncover the cause (or causes) of nagging symptoms or painful conditions—and possibly make them disappear.
Food Sensitivities and Food Allergies: A Widely Overlooked Problem
Food allergies and sensitivities account for approximately 60% of all undiagnosed conditions, by some estimates.2,3 Any system of the body can be affected, resulting in one or many of the following health conditions:
And this is just a short list.
So it’s worth your while to step back and take a look at the foods you’re eating in order to improve your health and quality of life. As with pollen, dust, or pollutants, natural or introduced chemical compounds contained in foods can trigger an allergic response. We’ve all heard of someone who had to be rushed to the hospital because a restaurant used peanut oil in preparing certain dishes without informing its patrons.
These are properly defined food allergies, and they manifest immediately. They may pose a more immediate health threat, but are relatively easy to detect and treat. Food sensitivities, on the other hand, are triggered by a distinct underlying mechanism. They can take a long time to develop, making them difficult to identify as the culprits behind a given set of secondary symptoms. The problem is they can wreak just as much havoc on your body over the long-term. Think of them as a food allergy in slow motion.
Here’s the difference between food allergies and sensitivities: once your immune system detects a substance it considers foreign, a chain reaction is set in motion to repel the perceived “invader.” This defensive mechanism is launched by lymphocytes, white blood cells capable of producing specific antibodies to target and neutralize the threat.
They release five different types of antibodies: IgA, IgD, IgE, IgG, and IgM. It is the IgE and IgG antibodies that are mobilized when lymphocytes come in contact with allergenic food proteins.4,5 We don’t know precisely what causes some people’s immune systems to consider foods to be “foreign,” while other people’s immune systems consider food to be—well, just food! However, in the process of trying to rid the body of something it believes shouldn’t be there, a vital and normal process goes very wrong, subjecting us to “symptom attacks” triggered by the foods we depend on every day for life.
Again, these types of intense reactions—anaphylactic reactions—occur within minutes after eating or being exposed to a food or other substance6 and are usually associated with “IgE” antibodies. IgE-mediated food allergies are most common in infants and children; we tend to lose sensitivity to many of these common food allergens as we age.7,8
“IgG”-mediated food sensitivities tend to be “masked” or hidden, since IgG antibody-related symptoms tend to occur many hours to days after exposure to offending foods.3 Considerable controversy exists about these types of food allergies and sensitivities, precisely because of the delayed onset of symptoms and the difficulty this presents in making a clinical correlation between symptoms and food triggers.
This is where accurate and reliable allergy testing has the most to contribute to diagnosis. The best support comes from research and from actual patients showing that, when foods suspected of causing adverse reactions are eliminated from the diet based upon sensitivity testing, symptoms improve. If the food is then added back into the diet, patients often report a return of symptoms, a pattern that suggests a strong correlation between the ingestion of the food and your body’s reaction.9
Sickness... Or Food Sensitivity?
A surprisingly broad array of health “problems” are in reality the result of these undetected food sensitivities. Perhaps the most well-known example of this is the widespread number of health problems produced by gluten (or gliadin, one of its constituents), proteins found in products made with wheat, rye, barley, and spelt (in fact, most grains except corn and rice). Though oats are not a gluten-containing grain, they tend to be included in this group because they are often processed on the same equipment as wheat and may be contaminated by it.
The most serious form of gluten sensitivity, known as celiac disease, may affect as many as 1 out of every 133 people.10 If undetected and untreated, gluten sensitivity can cause a weakening of the villi of the small intestines. These minute, finger-like protuberances are vital to nutrient absorption; their atrophy may lead to a host of chronic ailments.11 Those who are sensitive to gluten can, at its worst, experience severe weight loss, fatigue, and malnutrition, all caused by nutritional malabsorption related to gluten. Of course, many if not most of these adverse effects can be prevented or reversed when gluten sensitivity is detected early and products containing gluten are eliminated from the diet.12-14
Though many theories have been proposed for its cause, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is another condition that may have its origins in food sensitivity.15,16 At any given time, 12-20% of adults complain of symptoms consistent with a diagnosis of IBS, making it one of the most common gastrointestinal disorders in the United States.17-19 The symptoms characteristic of IBS include gastrointestinal discomfort and pain accompanied by intermittent diarrhea and constipation. More women than men are affected. When patients are assessed for food sensitivity and those foods identified by testing are eliminated from the diet, many report significant improvement in their symptoms.16,20-25 In one study, improvement after specific food elimination was sustained a minimum of one year later for most participants.9
Migraine headache is another condition long associated with food sensitivity.26 Among the foodborne triggers most frequently associated with migraine are nitrates, a type of preservative found in certain types of processed meats; tyramines, which are found in red wine, cheese, and soy sauce; and phenylethylamine, found in chocolate.27 Caffeine, citrus, vinegar, and alcohol may also be migraine triggers. People suffering from migraines have been shown to improve significantly once they remove offending migraine “trigger foods” from their diet.3,28
IgG-mediated food sensitivities tend to be masked or hidden, since IgG antibody-related symptoms tend to occur many hours to days after exposure to offending foods.