Archive for Food sensitivities

We’re more sensitive to gluten than we used to be.

The New York Times’ Well Blog makes note of an interesting study today.

The study found that undiagnosed gluten sensitivity (celiac disease), as measured by a blood test, is four times more common than it was fifty years ago.


The blog’s author (Tara Parker-Pope) speculates that the change “may be due to changes in the way wheat is grown and processed, or the ubiquity of gluten in medications and processed foods.”

I would add that our human ecosystems have seen some pretty serious changes as our food, medicine, and environment have changed. The relationship between gluten sensitivity and intestinal ecology isn’t understood, but I’d be willing to bet it’s significant.

I want to see the results of the Human Microbiome Project!

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We’re all sensitive.

More notes on allergies and sensitivities:

1. We’re all sensitive to the barrage of toxic crap we breathe, eat and drink.

2. Dealing with the barrage of toxic crap increases our sensitivity to potential allergens and irritants.

3. Allergy and sensitivity are directly related to overall health and stress levels.

Some people seem to think that immune reactions are as fundamental and unchanging as eye or skin color. Not so. Our bodies are much more interesting than that. Our immune reactions are often mediated by stress—psychological or physical.

It’s possible to be allergic to something only when you’re stressed out. I see this often in people who have been diagnosed with “Irritable Bowel Syndrome.”
They can eat a trigger food with no problem most of the time, but if they’re tired or stressed out, the food triggers an IBS attack. So the real trigger is the interaction between the food and the stress. Knowing this, people can learn their triggers and take care of their health much more easily. They can say “I’ve had a long day, and wheat is a stress-related trigger for me, so let’s have rice for dinner instead of pasta.”

It makes sense to me that our nervous systems and our immune systems are so closely connected. If we’re feeling threatened in one sphere, why shouldn’t all our systems be up in arms?

Here’s a funny, geeky bit about stress and immune reactions:

“Psychological stress may be conceptualized as a social pollutant that, when ‘breathed’ into the body, may disrupt biological systems related to inflammation through mechanisms potentially overlapping with those altered by physical pollutants and toxicants.” From The impact of stress on the development and expression of atopy. Current Opinion in Allergy & Clinical Immunology. 5(1):23-29, February 2005. Wright, Rosalind J a; Cohen, Robyn T b; Cohen, Sheldon c

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Food sensitivities vs. bad-food sensitivities

Food sensitivities are in style now. Gluten/wheat and casein/dairy are the most commonly cited offenders. I have a suspicion about this: most people feel better when they eliminate wheat and dairy from their diets because most wheat and dairy products people eat are just plain bad food.

I don’t doubt the existence of food sensitivities. I have several herbal clients who have clear negative reactions to gluten and/or casein in any form. For them, scrupulous avoidance is the only choice. But I think there’s a difference between a true food sensitivity and the universal sensitivity to bad food. And to help determine that difference, I’ve added some elements to the tried-and-true elimination diet.

The old-time common-sense approach is: if a food makes you feel bad, don’t eat it. An elimination diet is just a fine-tuning of that sensible bit of advice. These are the elements of a traditional elimination diet:

For at least 3 weeks, avoid all potential trigger foods. (I like to develop a list of potential trigger foods based on an individual’s health status, ancestry and dietary history. The most common trigger foods are: dairy, wheat and other gluten grains, corn, soy, rice, eggs, citrus, fish and nuts.)

At the end of the month, reintroduce the foods one at a time, carefully observing possible reactions. (Each food needs to be eaten in quantity on two occasions, separated by 2-3 days in order to “prime” the immune system for a potential reaction.)

To this sensible system, I add the following:

In addition to avoiding potential trigger foods during the elimination and testing period, avoid all foods on the bad or sketchy food lists. And when you reintroduce the suspected trigger food, reintroduce it in the healthiest form available (e.g., if you suspect wheat, reintroduce it as long-fermented sourdough or levain-type bread rather than pasta or quick bread).

I suspect that using this system, quite a few people who feel they’re sensitive to all wheat (or dairy, or corn, etc., etc.) might find they’re only sensitive to the bad or sketchy forms of the food in question.

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