by Dr. Scott Saunders, M.D.
“My itching is gone! I no longer have headaches! And, that rash disappeared!” Marilyn exclaimed very surprised. For three weeks she had been on an elimination diet for problems in her intestines and hadn’t expected her other symptoms to go away. She also stopped having bloating and pain in her stomach. As she started adding in foods, one thing showed up that she clearly reacted to: milk. Every time she ate anything with milk in it, including cheese, yogurt, and sauces, she got bloating and her itching and rash returned. Other things she thought she might be allergic to didn’t cause any reaction at all.
What is a food allergy?
Any allergy is an immune reaction. The immune system exists simply to keep those things that are “not you,” such as bacteria, viruses, and so forth, from harming you. So, the immune system only has to distinguish what is “you” from what is “not you.” If you have a protein that is “not you” inside of you, then the immune system will fight to get it out, causing inflammation, reactions, and all sorts of symptoms.
What causes food allergies?
Food allergies are very common in western cultures. In traditional societies that eat their traditional foods, food allergies are rare. In a study in South Africa, the indigenous people were changed to a “western diet.” Normally, on their traditional diet they would have been protected from food allergies, but on the western diet they experienced a sharp rise in them.[i]
Food is not part of you! You may think that you are what you eat, but in reality, you have to break down EVERYTHING into its component parts; every molecule is absorbed and used to build up your own body. If your body can’t break down your food properly, it cannot be absorbed and your immune system reacts to it.
A food allergy is an adverse immune response to a food protein. Proteins are long chains of amino acids that are wadded up into a ball. In the stomach, these proteins are opened up into their long chains (“denatured”) so the enzymes in your stomach and intestines can cut them into individual amino acids. These amino acids are then absorbed and made into your very own protein. There may be several reasons that you don’t digest proteins:
- Low stomach acid
- Low enzyme production
- Inflammation in the intestines
- Bad bacteria in the stomach or intestines
- Lack of bile
Why do people get allergies to food?
When proteins aren’t digested, they go into the intestines whole and the immune system says, “That’s not me!” and start to fight against it. This can cause all sorts of problems depending on many factors, such as the type of protein, the type of reaction (there are four primary types of reactions) and the amount of protein.
So, a food allergy is just a normal immune response to the presence of a protein that isn’t in the right place. If our digestive system functions as it should, then we will have few or no proteins getting into the intestines in whole form. They will all be broken-down into amino acids, which do NOT cause allergic reactions. Only the whole proteins can cause a reaction, and start the inflammation cycle.
The more inflammation you have in the intestines, the worse the digestive system works, allowing more proteins into the intestines, causing more reactions. This can continue throughout life. The inflammation can be felt anywhere in the body, from rashes on the skin to headaches.
What are the symptoms of food allergies?
This is a very difficult question to answer because it can be anything – or nothing! Many people (some experts think MOST) have no symptoms at all, but have inflammation inside their intestines without any noticeable problem. Other food allergy symptoms include:
- Allergic rhinitis (nasal allergies)
- Sinus problems
- Rashes of all types (Eczema, Seborrhea, Psoriasis, Urticaria, and so forth)
- GERD (acid reflux)
- Abdominal pain
- Chest pain
- Migraine Headaches
- Chronic cystitis (bladder pain)
The list goes on and on.
The University of Chicago Celiac Disease center explains the symptoms of just one type of food allergy, which may apply to any other as well:
There are hundreds of signs and symptoms of [food allergy], many of them subtle and seemingly unrelated. Yet many people with [food allergies] have no symptoms at all. In those cases, the undamaged part of their small intestine is able to absorb enough nutrients to prevent symptoms. However, people without symptoms are still at risk for some of the complications…[ii]
What are the complications?
People with chronic inflammation in their intestines are more prone to many diseases — and not just of the intestines. Of course, they may have gas, bloating, diarrhea, cramps, GERD, and other signs of intestinal inflammation, but they may also have poor absorption of nutrients that lead to other, seemingly unrelated problems, such as:
- Thyroid problems
- Frequent infections
- Autoimmune diseases (Lupus)
- … and many others.
It also leads to a shortened lifespan, degeneration and decline in function. Thus, food sensitivities are common, and life-threatening, making them a very important problem!
Are there any tests to see if you have food allergies?
Traditionally, skin testing using grids of many needles to inject tiny amounts of the food protein under the skin to see if it creates a reaction. Unfortunately, this is not an accurate way to measure the reaction to foods in the intestines. This method is about 50% reproducible; meaning if you do the same test again, you will get half of them the same – about like flipping a coin!
There are some new tests that are a little better, but have their own problems. For example, we can measure antibodies to various proteins; however, you may have a reaction to a different protein in the food! These are about 80% reproducible. There are some cellular tests that determine whether your white blood cells react to the food, but again these tests aren’t consistent. So, what do we do?
I often use the antibody test to get us close, or to give us some clues as to what might be going on. Then we do the Elimination Diet, like Marilyn, above. She showed reactions to milk, wheat, and candida, so we eliminated them. (For candida, we do a yeast cleanse which eliminates simple sugars). The real test is to see if you have a reaction. For those who don’t have any symptoms, it’s very hard to do this because you aren’t sure what you are looking for. However, I have had several people with chronic fatigue and really no other issues just eliminate everything except lamb broth and green leafy vegetables for three weeks who have felt much better.
After eliminating a food (or multiple foods) for three weeks, you can start adding them back into your diet one-by-one. Give only one day between them. Any reaction will be apparent within one day. For more information about the elimination diet, check out our How to Eat Allergy Free article HERE.
How do I prevent allergies?
Prevention is the greatest thing you could do. If you could stop food allergies from happening, then it would protect your health in many different ways. Since you already know what causes the problem (poor digestion of protein), all we need to do is improve your digestion to digest protein well.
Remember, the acid in the stomach is important to denature the protein so the enzymes can break it down. Protecting your stomach acid is therefore foundational. This is done in several ways:[am4show guest_error=’noaccess’]
1. Keep your stomach empty as much as possible.
Nutritionists tell us that we always need to have something in our stomachs to keep our energy up. This, however, is bad advice for digestion. The “reset” button for stomach acid is an empty stomach and eating all the time creates a constant low level of acid. By always having food in the stomach, the pH doesn’t get close to normal, nor does it get enough acid to denature some proteins. On the other hand, having an empty stomach allows it to “reset” the pH to normal and produce more acid to aid in digesting proteins when we do eat. This also prevents GERD, H. pylori infection, ulcers, and other stomach problems. (The pH of plain water is 7. More acid is a lower pH so if you have a pH of 1, that is very acidic and proteins will digest easier.)
This diagram demonstrates that your stomach’s pH is restored to a higher level when the stomach is empty with only 2 meals a day, versus frequent meals throughout the day.
2. Avoid allergenic foods.
These include GMO foods, especially the ones that contain the BT toxin gene. This is a toxin found in corn and potatoes that can incorporate into your intestinal bacteria, giving you a constant supply of the toxin and causing immune stimulation.
The other main problem foods that are highly allergenic are wheat and milk. Wheat contains gluten that requires a very acidic stomach in order to digest it. Milk seems to be digestible until it is pasteurized, or heated, changing the proteins and making them more acid-stable and hard to digest. Raw milk would be an improvement.
3. Fast periodically.
Some of my patients do a weekly fast. One woman has chosen Monday to be her fast day because she found that she could continue to eat her preferred foods if she took a day off. She eats Sunday night, just drinks water on Monday, and then eats her normal breakfast on Tuesday morning. After many years of GERD and other stomach problems, she has been a whole year feeling normal. Remember, NOT eating is the way to reset the stomach. A day off is great for your health in so many ways by allowing more efficient digestion, better enzyme production, and better acid production.
4. Avoid sugar.
The addition of sweet foods is destructive to the digestion because all of the bad bacteria and yeast grow on sugar. Processed foods have been implicated in food allergies for many years, even though we may not have an allergy to the sugar itself. Sugar causes inflammation.
5. Eat fiber.
Beans, peas, lentils, fruit and vegetables all contain fiber that the good bacteria in your intestines make into substances that suppress inflammation.
6. Avoid the things you know you react to.
I shouldn’t have to say this, but I do because I have had so many patients say, “I know I react to ___________, but I like it!” Yet they continue to eat the thing they’re allergic to. As long as you continue to eat what causes a reaction, you will not get better – remember the vicious cycle above.
- Eat fewer meals
- Avoid allergenic foods
- Fast periodically
- Avoid sugar
- Eat fiber
- Avoid the things that cause a reaction
Food allergies are not at all common in societies where they eat natural, unprocessed foods and don’t eat too much. We are not destined to have food allergies because of our genes. We have a wonderful digestive system that is incredibly complex and works very well when treated properly.
If you do periodic maintenance on your car, changing the oil, checking the brakes, and so forth, then why not on an infinitely more complex machine – your body! Your digestive system is your primary interface with the world, bringing in all your energy and nutrients that you need to live, breathe, work, play, and do all that you do.
Keep it working properly and it will allow you to remain healthy for the rest of your life. It’s not hard, and it’s worth all the care we can give it.
Dr. Scott D. Saunders, M.D. (Ask-an-MD) is a practicing physician, specializing in preventative health care, who utilizes eclectic health care for the whole family, including conventional, orthomolecular and natural medicine. He is also the medical director of The Integrative Medical Center of Santa Barbara in Lompoc, CA. He went to UCLA medical school and is board certified in family medicine. View natural remedies with Dr. Saunders at: http://drsaundersmd.com