Food Allergies And Natural Medicine Part 1


by Stephen Terrass

In the introduction to this series on orthomolecular medicine, we looked at the fact that nutrient deficiencies are very common and can lead to many different health disorders. The development of allergies is certainly no exception.

Food allergies are one of the most quickly growing health problems. It is probably due not only to people becoming more allergic to various foods; it is undoubtedly also due to the fact that food allergies are more frequently diagnosed.

Although the term 'food allergy' is used by many to mean any adverse reaction to a food, technically speaking, a food allergy is a reaction caused by the attack of a particular food component (usually a food protein) by the body's immune system. The attack of the food component by certain white blood cells causes a release of inflammatory chemicals such as histamine. Histamine is the main chemical involved in allergic reactions. What type of food allergy symptoms occur (e.g. eczema, asthma, digestive irritation, migraine, etc.) depend on where the food component is attacked by the white blood cells.

In the case of food allergies, the body's immune system will not attack completely digested food components. For example, if a food protein is completely broken down into its single amino acids, then there would be no reaction. The breakdown of food protein into its individual amino acids requires adequate activity of certain digestive enzymes such as hydrochloric acid and pepsin (stomach) and protease (secreted from the pancreas into the duodenum). A deficiency in these enzymes when required can increase one's tendency to food allergies. Remember, larger amounts of food at one time require larger amounts of digestive enzymes, so meals should be smaller and more frequent.

Fortunately, the body has a defence mechanism to protect against absorption of undigested food proteins into the blood. As it turns out, the intestinal tract is designed to not allow large components such as food proteins to permeate through into the bloodstream in the first place. Therefore, even if the digestion is poor, a food allergy reaction would not take place if one's intestinal wall is healthy. Unfortunately, it is relatively common for the intestinal wall of an individual to be damaged in such a way that larger food components are allowed to get through into the blood supply. This is known as 'excessive intestinal permeability' or 'leaky gut syndrome'.

Many people have both poor protein digestion and excessive intestinal permeability, and thus develop food allergies. What causes these problems can vary from person to person, but frequently it can occur due to deficiencies in various nutrients. Various vitamins, minerals and amino acids are involved in the production and release of protein digesting enzymes in both the stomach and from the pancreas. The same is true for the manufacture and repair of connective tissue of the intestinal wall. In addition to nutrient imbalances, among other things, stress and improper diet can lead to digestive deficiencies. Bacterial imbalances in the intestines, overgrowth of the yeast candida albicans, chronic constipation or diarrhoea, certain medication, poor diet, and many other factors can damage the integrity of the intestinal wall.

When one experiences chromic food allergies, there is yet another problem that arises. For instances, the immune system is designed to protect the body from harmful invaders such as viruses, harmful bacteria and cancer cell development. If the white blood cells of the immune system are working so hard to attack food components, then it is not going to be as effective at attacking harmful bacterial, viruses, etc. Many nutrients play a vital role in the boosting of the strength of the immune system, and a deficiency in any one of them can lead to further problems. It is though by many experts that allergic people have an imbalance in certain white blood cells (called T-cells) which eventually leads to a hypersensitivity of the immune system to allergens. The control of the production of T-cells is in the thymus gland. The thymus activity is controlled by certain nutrients, and deficiencies in these nutrients can lead to imbalances in T-cell activity.

The treatment of food allergies is a difficult subject for many reasons, but particularly because there are many different issues to be addressed. The main priorities include:

  1. improve the digestion (especially of proteins)
  2. stimulate the efficient development and repair of connective tissue (thus aiding intestinal wall integrity)
  3. address the allergic reaction itself
  4. enhance the health and proper functioning of the immune system improving the digestion of proteins

As mentioned, various nutrients are involved in the proper activity of enzymes which break down protein into single amino acids. This list includes:

  • minerals (especially zinc)
  • vitamins, especially various B vitamins (e.g. pyridoxine or B6)
  • amino acids

As it is doubtful that therapeutic amounts of the many nutrients needed for digestion will be achievable from food intake only, the use of a moderate to high potency multiple vitamin/mineral formulation is often employed by practitioners.

Some will have adequate digestive activity restored by correcting the nutrient deficiencies mentioned above. For many food allergy sufferers, however, significant reduction in allergic tendency to foods is more likely achieved by replacing the primary protein-digesting enzymes themselves, until such time that they can manufacture adequate enzymes on their own. Many practitioners will administer supplementation of hydrochloric acid (as betaine hydrochloride) and protease enzymes (in a pancreatic enzyme combination known as pancreatin). When betaine hydrochloride is used, it is taken only during or immediately after major meals and if any warmth or irritation is experienced in the stomach after taking, then the dosage should be reduced at the next meal until this does not occur. Betaine hydrochloride should NOT be used by anyone with a history of stomach or duodenal ulcers.

improving intestinal wall integrity

In order to repair damage to the integrity of the intestinal wall, connective tissue must be replaced very quickly. Several nutrients are required for connective tissue production including:

  • vitamins (especially vitamins A, C and E)
  • minerals (especially zinc and silicon)
  • several amino acids
  • the amino sugar glucosamine

inhibiting the allergic reaction

The allergic reaction itself is initiated by tissue irritation or damage at the site of the immune system attack of the food allergen. This tissue irritation stimulates the release of histamine and other inflammatory chemicals which account ultimately for the eventual symptoms of the reaction. Histamine is released by a certain type of white blood cell known as a mast cell. Many nutrients and natural substances inhibit mast cell release of histamine, and typically without the side effects normally associated with anti-histamine drugs. The main beneficial substances include:

  • Vitamin C
    - which detoxifies histamine from the body
  • vitamin E
    - which inhibits various inflammatory mechanisms
  • Zinc
    - mineral which inhibits inflammatory histamine and leukotrienes
  • selenium
    - mineral which works with vitamin E as an anti-inflammatory agent
  • EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and GLA (gamma linolenic acid)
    - essential fatty acids which inhibit inflammatory prostaglandins and leukotrienes (EPA is often derived from supplemental fish oils or linseed oil / GLA is found in high concentrations in borage oil and evening primrose oil)
  • quercetin (plant flavonoid from the herb sophora japonicas)
    - quercetin is a very potent inhibitor of both histamine and leukotriene release from mast cells, as well as leading to lower activity of inflammatory prostaglandins
  • bromelain (proteolytic enzyme derived from pineapple)
    - bromelain is a strong anti-inflammatory agent as well as being a protein-digesting enzyme

improving the proper function of the thymus gland

The mineral zinc is one of the most important substances in the health of the thymus. It is particularly necessary for the proper activity of T-cells and the release of thymus-derived hormones. Beta carotene, the plant-derived precursor to vitamin A, protects the thymus from damage from ageing and highly reactive and damaging substances known as free radicals.

Clearly, the first priority in the case of food allergies is to obtain a diagnosis as to which foods are responsible for the reactions. Many different methods are employed for such a diagnosis such as certain types of blood tests; elimination diets (followed by reintroducing foods one at a time to test for a reaction); and many others. Whether or not diagnosis has been established, the above methods may be of great value for the food allergy sufferer. The best approach, however, is a to avoid allergic foods wherever possible, and to reduce the allergic tendency through the improvement of digestion and repair of the intestinal wall. If an allergic reaction occurs, the natural substances which inhibit inflammatory chemicals such as histamine can be employed, and many will use them to help prevent a reaction (although one should not assume that these will adequately prevent severe, and potentially life-threatening reactions such as anaphylaxis).

Food allergy is a multifaceted disorder which affects many people. The medical and scientific research which has been performed in this area and has uncovered many valuable discoveries such as those listed above. Clearly, the benefits that orthomolecular and other aspects of natural medicine have to offer to the food allergy sufferer are great, and new research will doubtlessly provide even more advances in the future.

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