Step 5: Food Allergies:
Watch Those Favorite Foods

Allergies create chronic inflammation.
Chronic inflammation wears us out.

Cytokines are immunomodulators that also function as neurotransmitters and are released when the immune system is activated. Some people experience stress because they're unwittingly keeping their immune systems working in overdrive by stimulating them with allergy-generating foods. Unfortunately, it's easy to become addicted to foods that trigger allergies.

Digestion is a very energy demanding, complex process. That's one of the reasons stress hormones redirect blood away from digestion when we're stressed. If we're running or fighting for our lives we need all our blood and energy for that - it's not time to be digesting food. That's why on occasion people lose their appetite when stressed or have gastric distress if they're unexpectedly disturbed while eating.

Our gastrointestinal tract has to break down the proteins in our food into their amino acid constituents; carbohydrates get broken down into sugars. (Fats get emulsified and absorbed through a different route.) Digestive enzymes have to be secreted, stomach and intestinal walls have to contract, massaging the whole solution and moving it through the gut ... all this takes a lot of energy and a lot of nutrients which are sometimes in poor supply.)

If digestion weakens then the gut may not be able to do its job. Stress weakens digestion; so does normal aging. When digestion is compromised proteins may not break down completely into their constituent amino acids. This allows randomized protein fragments to leak through the gut wall into the bloodstream. This leakage worsens if the gut is inflamed.

And it's easy for the gut to become inflamed when this goes on because once the protein fragments are in the bloodstream they encounter the immune system. The immune system also has a very demanding job. Immune cells are constantly circulating through the body trying to distinguish what's us from what's not us. It does this by examining the shapes on the surfaces of everything it encounters. If the shapes immune cells encounter tell them that something is part of us, they leave it alone. But if the shapes are not right (as in the case of our undigested protein fragments) they flag the offending molecules as foreign invaders (called antigens) and begin to mount an inflammatory immune response.

Free radicals are generated which oxidize the invading antigens but also create the inflammation. When this happens in the gut wall a vicious cycle occurs as the tissues can become so porous that even more incompletely digested protein fragments can enter the blood, triggering still more inflammation. Cytokines are generated and access the whole body through the blood flow. Inflammation can make the blood brain barrier more porous as well as the gut, particularly if they're undernourished. This allows substances to flow into the brain that would not normally be allowed. Some cytokines can cross the blood brain barrier and have been associated with changes in psychological state. The reactions can be complex and idiosyncratic.

The common name for this sequence of events is allergy. A body going through such an allergic reaction registers the increase in cytokines as an emergency; this provokes the HPA axis into releasing stress hormones in response. These stress hormones have multiple actions, one of which is to stimulate an increase in blood sugar to fuel a fight or flight or hypervigilant state. Of course we're not actually running or fighting and the rise in blood sugar level can set in motion an endocrine cascade involving dopamine and serotonin release. This is how we can become addicted to the foods that trigger this immunoendocrine cascade.

There's two relatively simple ways one can tell if this is going on.

  1. The simple way: check the pulse before and after eating something. Because the release of cytokines stimulates the release of stress hormones, the pulse rate will increase noticeably. If this happens then it's likely that an allergic reaction is happening. If it's not happening an allergic reaction might still be in process; double-check the results by doing the following, more definitive test:

  2. Challenge Allergy Testing is something anyone can do themselves. Use it to monitor your changing reactions to foods and other problem substances. Feedback is direct and immediate, and once you grasp the way it works with food you can use it to test your reaction to all kinds of things, not just foods.

    • Start by keeping a five-day food diary. Don't be good—be yourself. It's not going to help if you alter your habits for the purpose of the test. Write down everything you eat.

    • When you're done, review your list and look for foods that you eat every day. If you find any, mark them with a mental yellow flag.

    • Next, ask yourself if the food you've flagged is a favorite food. If so, this is two yellow flags. The more you crave the food, the brighter yellow the flags.

    • Finally, watch for an energy or concentration drop or mood swing (or other allergic symptom; one example might be gastric distress in Crohn's disease sufferers) within thirty to sixty minutes after eating the suspect food. If so, this is three yellow flags, and it's time to do the Challenge Test.

    • Stop eating the food in question for a week. See if you can detect an improvement in energy, mood or other symptoms.

    • If there's any doubt in your mind at this point about the matter, you can then reintroduce the food, eat it every day, and see if your old symptoms return. If so, you're allergic to this food. You'll feel it in your body and mind.

There are at least three things that can throw off the Challenge Test's results.

  1. If you're chronically malnourished, simply avoiding allergic foods may not produce marked positive change in your energy or moods. Cover your basics.

  2. If you're allergic to several things and you only drop one of them you may not get a clear-cut result.

  3. there's often a lag period of several days in each direction. It can easily take two or three days of abstinence for your mind to clear and your energy to re-emerge. It can also take two or three days of allergic re-exposure for fatigue and mood swings (or other aggravations) to begin again.There's two bits of good news though: with most mild allergies, once you've avoided an allergic food for awhile you can have it on special occasions without triggering the allergy. Make your allergic foods delicacies, not staples. Also, since the problem is triggered by poor digestion, taking digestive enzymes can help.