A member asked the question of how healing the integrity of the digestive system can help someone with food allergies. This week we will look at how foods affect the gut and its immune system and next week we will look at how we treat food allergies.
For the purpose of this article, food allergies will be defined as an antibody (immune system) response to a food antigen (irritant) leading to symptoms. In other words, the immune system's attack on food as if it were a foreign invader. Allergy symptoms can range in severity from barely perceptible to life-threatening depending on how the immune system reacts. In this discussion we will avoid the far-end of this spectrum of hypersensitivity reactions resulting in anaphylaxis.
It is also important to note that not all reactions to food are allergies and these reactions will also not be discussed here. For example, the pain, bloating and gas experienced after eating dairy in a lactase deficient individual, or the headaches from cheese, wine, or chocolate.
For the body to handle the irritating nature of food, the intestinal lining must be intact and proper digestion and absorption must occur. Not only does the gut have to process a large quantity of food daily but it must also handle a wide variety of compounds in the food. When food is not broken down completely, the local immune system does not recognize the particles as being safe and mounts an attack.
The gut wall is the barrier that prevents these particles from entering into the blood so it must be healthy (i.e. no holes or leaks). The gut's immune system is quite extensive since it must protect every square millimeter of the wall in order to prevent invasion. The gut is actually the largest immune organ because of this important role it plays.
"Invaders" that get through the barrier could potentially lodge anywhere in the body, therefore, many symptoms and conditions can be attributed to food allergies. The symptoms may not appear for 3 days so it is difficult to identify the suspect food without testing. Possible symptoms include: irritable bowel syndrome, headaches, fatigue, eczema, ear infections, sinusitis, arthritis, and attention deficit disorder. This list is far from complete and symptoms may be much more subtle or more severe.
The immune response is a constant challenge that the gut must face in order to mount a sufficient local response to prevent an allergic reaction and yet it doesn't want to overreact so that the normal cells, which maintain the barrier and do the digesting, are not harmed. If the immune system is stimulated too often or by a massive exposure to irritants, the gut will be more permeable and allow "invaders" into the blood.
Some foods are simply more irritating than others and we find that more people are allergic to these than others. For example, peanuts, shellfish, strawberries, chocolate, wheat, eggs and dairy are some of the more antigenic (irritating) foods, whereas rice is not that antigenic. This does not mean that everyone who has allergies is sensitive to the more antigenic ones or that rice can never be an allergen for someone, just that some foods present more of a challenge to the body than others. Allergy testing is useful for almost anyone who is looking to optimize health since we may not be aware how much certain foods are affecting us. We recommend the blood test that looks at the IgG and IgE antibodies. An elimination and reintroduction diet is an excellent way to determine allergies but it takes time, discipline and attention to detail.