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Inflammation: the key to understanding food intolerance
Our immune system produces chemical messengers that are constantly patrolling our body, ready to respond to threats from microbes and chemical compounds
December 5, 2012 | By:
There are several causes of food intolerance, but all involve inflammation. This is the secret to healing it, and it needn't involve drugs. By Jerome Burne  
Health Allergy testing_620 Corbis 42-34990437

Tests may show intolerances, but leave you confused about why you have them

Last week I wrote about the way Italian immunologist and allergy specialist Attilio Speciani cleared up a range of symptoms from which my younger daughter Kitty had been suffering for several years: muscle pain, headaches, dizziness and nausea.

They weren’t acute but they made her feel lousy and tired much of the time. None of the doctors and specialists that she’d seen had come up with a diagnosis that explained what was going on.

Essentially, the problem came down to a few foods that produced inflammation. Reducing these foods for two months, along with a couple of supplements to aid digestion and reduce inflammation, made a big difference.

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But what makes someone start having problems with various foods, apparently at random?

When I asked Attilio, his reply made me think about food intolerance in a new way. “From the moment you are born your immune system comes under attack,” he told me. “It has to react to what is harmful and be tolerant to what is safe.

“If you feed a newborn baby regular food right away, it will have a bad reaction. He would feel very sick, he would probably have explosive diarrhoea, ache all over and have a dreadful headache. That is what a strong immune response feels like.

“This would happen because the baby’s immune system has not had time to sort out when to react and when to tolerate. It has to be learned, because it is a very complex balancing act.”

The immune police patrolling our bodies

Our immune system produces chemical messengers, with strange names such as TNF-alpha and interleukin 6 (IL6), that are constantly patrolling our body. They are ready to respond to threats from the millions of microbes and chemical compounds that we inhale or swallow every minute of the day.

At the same time, these immune forces have to recognise the fats and proteins in foods that are friendly, along with the gut bacteria that are vital for digestion and play their own role in regulating the immune system.

It is impossible to say exactly why we develop a problem with a particular food. But it’s most likely to happen around an event in our life that puts our immune system into a state of high alert.

How intolerance starts

Possible causes include: an infection; a vaccination (designed to provoke the immune system); stress (which fires up all kinds of chemical messengers); and, increasingly important, putting on lots of weight, especially around the middle. All of these involve inflammation.

“It is not so surprising that the food molecules that are around when your immune system is on high alert are the ones you eat most often,” says Attilio.

“Here in the West, wheat and dairy often show up because they form a big part of our diet. In China, people are most likely to have problems with soy and rice.

“The point is that foods can trigger an immune response not because they have some special quality, but just because they are commonly eaten.”

The way to deal with the problem is to go through something similar to the weaning process. Avoiding the foods that makes for more inflammation allows the system to stop responding to them. Then, just as with a baby, they can gradually be introduced into the diet so that they don’t trigger an alarmed response.

‘All doctors understand inflammation’

Mainstream medicine and many dietitians don’t regard food intolerance as a real condition. But Attilio believes he has a way to change that.

“The key is to talk about it in terms of inflammation,” he says. “All doctors understand inflammation.

“Recently, researchers have found a type of chemical messenger that links fat cells – especially the ones you grow when you start to put on weight around the middle – that produce inflammation.

“One, called BAFF, is linked with a raised risk of diabetes because it makes insulin less effective (called insulin resistance), and that raises inflammation.”

Now, if somebody goes to see Dr Speciani with the kind of symptoms my daughter had, he looks to see if there is inflammation in their body. Then he can tell their GP they have raised inflammation and explain what he is going to do to bring it down and improve the symptoms.

“Doctors understand that,” he says. “Intolerance, inflammation – why fight over a definition?”

Natural ways to reduce inflammation

It may take a bit longer for doctors to accept some of the natural products that can lower inflammation, rather than blocking it with the NSAID (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) like aspirin.

These include omega 3 fatty acids; blackcurrant oil; turmeric (a staple of Indian cooking); ginger; hops; and an antioxidant called lipoic acid.

But they are only unfamiliar because they don’t have a pharmaceutical company promoting them.

Read part one of this article: More tolerance for food intolerances

Related external links

Find a nutritionist in your area on BANT

Find out about York Test intolerance testing