We all need food to exist, and nearly all of us derive substantial pleasure from a well prepared meal. Unfortunately, we live in a time where the quality of food has come into question. Most of us recognize foods that should be avoided, including highly processed foods with added sugars, calorie dense fast food, chemically laden foods, and genetically modified foods. These are all likely culprits in many of the chronic ailments and the obesity epidemic that plagues a growing portion of our population. But what about foods considered “healthy”? Are there really any universally beneficial foods? It turns out that there are crucial individual differences that can cause an otherwise healthy food to become a source of chronic symptoms. In contrast to more commonly recognized food allergies that cause immediate reactions like a rash, swelling and difficulty breathing, food sensitivities can cause delayed immune reactions that insidiously make us ill.
Food sensitivities are not something I learned about in medical school, and many of my conventional colleagues scoff at the idea. But nearly 80% of the population is affected by food sensitivities or intolerances. Unlike allergies, food sensitivity is not always a straightforward yes or no. There usually are different degrees of intolerance, which can be altered by changing eating habits, stress levels, medical conditions, nutritional status, hormone levels, gut health and other factors that affect the immune system. Recent scientific discoveries have revealed deeper levels of understanding of how food interacts with our immune system affecting metabolism in ways that can be both beneficial and harmful. Chronic activation of the immune system produces chronic inflammation that is the underlying cause of most chronic diseases. Long term exposure can even trigger auto-immunity, where the immune system attacks its own body tissues.
The primary function of the gastrointestinal, or GI, tract has traditionally been believed to be the digestion and absorption of nutrients along with the balance of water and electrolytes. When we eat, food passes through the stomach into the small intestine. That is where nutrient absorption occurs through a semi-permeable lining of the intestinal wall. It has become increasingly clear that the gut also functions as a barrier to regulate the trafficking of larger molecules between the environment and the body. Because this mucous membrane shields the bloodstream from potential invaders such as toxins, pathogens and undigested food, it is a vital part of the body’s immune system. Researchers estimate that two-thirds of our immune activity occurs in the gut. Foods to which we have a specific sensitivity can alter the permeability of the intestinal lining. The immune system treats this “sensitive food” like a foreign invader. A classic example is the adverse effect gluten sensitivity can have on intestinal permeability which leads to a “leaky gut”.
Leaky Gut Syndrome is a condition that develops when the tight junctions between the cells on the mucous lining of the small intestine becomes too porous, allowing unwanted toxins to enter the bloodstream. A substance call zonulin modulates those tight junctions. Gluten and its toxic component gliadin, just like bacterial overgrowth, have been shown to activate the zonulin pathway leading to increased intestinal permeability. A variety of conditions have been associated with dysfunction of intestinal tight junctions, including food sensitivities, GI tract infections, autoimmune diseases and inflammatory bowel diseases. There is also growing evidence that genetically modified foods may contribute to leaky gut as well. Zonulin levels can be measured.
Cassandra, a registered dietitian that works with me had years of GI difficulties despite eating a very healthy diet. After she eliminated foods identified on her ALCAT food sensitivity test, her symptoms improved dramatically. Interestingly, her daughter had some of the same intolerances. She recently told me, “The ALCAT panel has revealed to me foods that I could never properly identify as bothersome, but truly are. Now that these foods are eliminated and/or minimized, my gut is much more calm and healthy and I feel amazing. This test has been so helpful for my family and I who all struggle with gastro-intestinal disorders and has us all function at a much higher health level. I recommend it to everyone I know who struggles with digestive issues and can’t say enough good about it.”
Food sensitivities and leaky gut are very closely interrelated. The source of the problems may originate in the intestinal tract but can lead to widespread systemic symptoms, including:
• Joint pains
• Rashes and skin disorders
• Brain fog, poor memory & confusion
• Headaches or migraines
• Impaired sleep
• Nutrient deficiencies
• Irritable bowel syndrome
Another patient had a recurring rash on her face, trunk and extremities for several years. Despite seeing several dermatologists and trying a variety of prescription topical creams, she did not receive any lasting relief. Her ALCAT panel revealed several intolerant foods that she ate regularly. Once they were eliminated, her rash resolved. It has been nearly two years now. In my practice we have seen similar success with most of the symptoms listed above.
One more important point is about variety in your diet. Our digestive system is much better suited to a changing, seasonal diet. Unfortunately, as a society we are losing sight of that. With modern agriculture and ease of shipping, every food is available nearly year round. If people demand fresh strawberries in the middle of winter, all they have to do is go to the nearest grocery store to get them. While you do not need to have prior exposure to have a sensitivity, breaking down, digesting and metabolizing the same foods day after day increases the likelihood of developing a sensitivity to it, or a related food. You may not notice it at first, as your body has a tremendous capacity for adaptation. Eventually, with relentless exposure to the same foods that adaptation is overwhelmed and you begin to experience symptoms.
How will you know if you have a food sensitivity? All it requires is a simple blood test. It is a test that everyone wanting a healthy lifestyle should have done. The ancient Greek philosopher Lucretius once said, “One man’s meat is another man’s poison”. The ALCAT test can help you determine which food is which for you.