Q: I can tell that some foods make me feel bad, but I can't tell if this is an "allergy." Can I never eat these foods again? -Suzie P., Fort Collins, Colo.
A: Strictly speaking, the term "allergy" is used medically to mean a serious (life-threatening) anaphylactic response that is triggered in some people by foods such as strawberries, peanuts, shellfish, or dairy products. The vast majority of cases where food irritates a person's gut, skin, or mood in a non-life-threatening way are known as "sensitivities."
These adverse responses to food can be very unpleasant, causing symptoms such as extreme bloating, major stool changes, and dramatic and sudden mood changes. The protein in wheat (gliadin) is the best-known common food with psychotropic potential that can cause some people to feel deeply depressed-even suicidal. This kind of extreme sensitivity to gliadin tends to run in families, but it can come on later in life, around age 50.
How to Start an Elimination Diet
Food sensitivities can be notoriously difficult to pinpoint. Blood tests can be helpful, but an elimination diet is ultimately the best method of diagnosis. Simply stop eating suspect foods for at least two weeks (six weeks is better), then carefully reintroduce them to your diet, one at a time, in three-day increments while paying careful attention to any symptoms you experience.
Let's break this down a bit more. The "big 4" of food irritants remain wheat, dairy, corn, and soy. Products made from these troublesome foods are ubiquitous in the standard American diet, and mass-produced, which generally means poor quality. Additionally, all non-organic wheat, corn, and soy in the U.S. are genetically modified.
Begin your elimination diet by completely avoiding wheat, corn, soy, and dairy for about three weeks. If you feel better, you may be onto something. When you're ready to figure out which of the big 4 is causing your symptoms, introduce one of these foods back into your diet up to three times daily for three days in a row, while continuing to avoid the others. If you don't experience any adverse effects, you can keep that food in your diet, in moderation.
If, on the other hand, reintroducing the food immediately makes you feel wretched, that's a problem, and you should assiduously avoid it for 6-12 months. If you only start to feel yucky or weirdly sad, or get a pimple after your fourth or fifth dose of the problem food, then you need to avoid it for a "clean-out" period of 3-6 months, after which you will likely be able to enjoy it twice a week with impunity.
After you've determined whether the first of the big 4 causes you problems, simply repeat the process with the remaining three. And if you want to expand this concept a bit, you can do the same exercise with the "big 9," which includes the four common food irritants above, plus caffeine, peanuts, tomatoes, shellfish, and eggs.
I recommend working with an ND or a progressively trained nutritionist for help with this somewhat complex project. I've been especially impressed by the training received by Certified Nutritional Therapy Practitioners. They receive comprehensive, innovative training that equips them to make sensible nutritional recommendations for balancing the body and promoting optimal wellness. For more information, go to nutritionaltherapy.com.
The Two Best Blood Tests
If micromanaging your food sounds too difficult for now, I understand. It's nearly a full-time job. The next-best bet is a blood test that assesses whether or not you're having an immune response (producing antibodies) to certain foods.
Ideally, when you eat, your digestive system handles the whole process: saliva digests starch, teeth grind up chunks into soup, stomach acid breaks down protein into amino acids, bile emulsifies fat. Nutrients are then absorbed into the bloodstream through microvilli in the small intestine, while waste gets shunted to the colon for compaction and elimination. The immune system shouldn't get involved in the process. When it does, it can cause untold-and completely avoidable-misery.
US BioTek of Seattle, Wash. (usbiotek.com) offers a relatively inexpensive finger-prick test that can help diagnose the problem. For about $140, you can test 96 common foods and get quantified information about how much these foods irritate your immune system on a scale of zero to six. This information isn't perfect, because the immune response is quite dynamic. But it can be a good start for determining which foods could be the problem. When I see more than 20 or so foods with a high (4-6) response on this test, I know the patient has a "leaky gut," and lots of food proteins are getting into the bloodstream undigested. The first order of business here is to heal and seal the gut with demulcents such as aloe juice before meals and gut-repairing agents such as the supplement L-glutamine.
The US BioTek method looks for antibodies in the class IgG and IgA, but the immune system has many other ways to respond to an irritant besides IgG and IgA (antibodies secreted from B cells). If your food sensitivity causes an IgG or IgA reaction, this will be picked up by a test looking for those reactions. However, your immune system could also respond by producing, for example, extra histamine, leukotrienes, or interferon. A newer test, called MRT for mediator response test, measures a variety of ways in which foods could be irritating your immune system. It's a bit more expensive at $295, but tests for 205 foods and provides a comprehensive, personalized program for organizing menus to avoid problematic foods. I have enjoyed the extra information available with MRT testing for a few years now and recommend it to patients who are having difficulty with the elimination protocol on their own.
How NAET Can Help
So, what can you do other than avoid foods that cause discomfort or even illness? Especially if they are foods you love and just can't live without? Desensitization can sometimes help. There are various methods of desensitization (sort of like homeopathic vaccination), but most involve exposure to a tiny amount of the offending food substance and "hardening" your immune system so that it is less reactive.
One such method is called "NAET," which stands for Nambudripad Allergy Elimination Technique. NAET is a natural, noninvasive treatment used to identify and eliminate food and environmental allergies. It involves a combination of kinesiology (muscle testing), acupressure, and nutritional management. Dr. Nambudripad is an East Indian physician who developed this experimental method. While the practice hasn't been substantiated by research, anecdotal evidence suggests that it can be effective. Visit naet.com to learn more.
I also find the Blood Type approach to designing your optimal diet a very good starting point. For basic and likely helpful information for getting started, visit ER4YT.com.