Gut Instinct

Understanding Food Intolerance and the Links to Food Cravings and Chronic Illnesses

by Graeme Bradshaw

Mary's Story

"Mary" came to the clinic and asked me how she had developed food intolerances as an adult. As she told me about her health issues, it emerged that she had been given a lot of antibiotics as a girl for earaches and chesty coughs. At 17, she had glandular fever (mononucleosis) that took her a good while to get over. She wondered if it recurred when she was stressed and tired. Also, every year she needed a couple of courses of antibiotics for bad chesty colds or sometimes for sinusitis. In addition, I suspected that her fibromyalgia (chronic muscle pains) fit a class of cases where chronic intestinal infection followed a weakened immune system.

I then asked her if she often had thrush, and she flushed and asked how I knew. Yeast or fungal infections lasting many years are an important sign that the intestines have become home to several unfriendly bacteria and fungi, and that the levels of immune-supporting good bacteria called probiotics are very low. For women this often shows as vaginal itching and discharge, while men may have "jock itch," especially in summer.

As we talked some more she mentioned a lot of bloating, and that bread and beer were the worst culprits. "They make me look three months pregnant — people are always asking!" she said. Mary's muscle pain symptoms had lasted now for two years. She had frequent headaches and felt extremely tired, to the point where it was difficult to keep working. She was sleeping terribly, which was "becoming depressing." As she spoke, she had some tears and anxiety on her face as she worried out loud if she could get better.

Food Intolerance vs. Food Allergy

Do you love pasta, bread, or ice-cream so much you crave it frequently? Could it be a case of food intolerance and the gut instinct gone wrong? Many people suffer from food hypersensitivity and intolerance and are often not aware of it. Sufferers might actually love the food and even crave it.

Food intolerance is not to be confused with food allergies, however. A food allergy occurs when the immune system over-reacts to certain food particles, causing the body to mistakenly produce an antibody (IgE) to fight off the otherwise harmless antigens. The slightest exposure to the food particle is enough to trigger an uncomfortable food allergy reaction like itching, scratching, or sneezing. These symptoms of an allergic reaction occur almost immediately. Sometimes it includes swelling of the lips, mouth, and throat, even an alarming shortness of breath with wheezing.

Food intolerance, on the other hand, is more common and often goes unnoticed because symptoms can arise hours or days after the food is ingested. These symptoms might be as mild as gas and bloating, or as severe as arthritis and chronic fatigue. One of the most common types is intolerance is lactose. Many people have a shortage of the enzyme lactase that is needed to break down a type of sugar in the milk called lactose. Without lactase, symptoms such as an irritable gassy bowel, diarrhoea, and cramps often occur. (Certain strains of probiotics can help you digest sugars like lactase and reduce gas and bloating. Ask our dispensary team for more information.)

The immune system does get involved in food intolerances. Rather than producing the fast-acting IgE and histamine, the body produces IgG antibodies. These antibodies and the body's reactions tend to first affect the liver and then move into weaker body tissues and "agglutinate" there — get stuck — and cause delayed reactions of inflammation. Intolerances to gluten or wheat, for example, gradually cause inflammatory antibodies to accumulate first in the intestines (which swell up), but may travel to the skin (eczema), or joints (arthritis).

The other major effect of the reactions is to cause food cravings. This happens when inflammation in the liver induced by the food intolerance causes a chemical reaction that leads to low blood sugar levels (reactive hypoglycemia). The craving is usually not only for sugar, but also for sugar mixed with the triggering food (e.g., wheat flour in bread, biscuits, or maybe milk chocolate).

In Mary's case, we found that she had an intolerance to wheat, milk, yeast, and cola nut — she loved colas to keep her energy going! Bread and sugar were the foods she craved, as both were feeding the fungal overgrowths she had inside her.

Food Intolerance and Chronic Illness

Identifying food intolerances is important because it is very often linked to chronic diseases such as fibromyalgia, eczema, asthma, arthritis pain, irritable bowel syndrome, chronic fatigue, and even depression or hyperactivity. Food intolerance may be the major factor causing these illnesses or it may exacerbate the underlying genetic predisposition.

A case of food intolerance often develops in adulthood, unlike allergies that tend to go away as children grow up. In adults, food intolerance often begins with weak immunity, which is generally induced by stress or a lack of Vitamin D, vital minerals such as zinc, or probiotic gut flora.

When the immune system is weak, we become prone to infections from common germs, bacteria, or fungi. Antibiotics are often given to treat infections by fighting off bacteria, but they also reduce probiotics by as much as 60% in the intestine. This severe reduction in probiotics further cripples the already weak immune system. Healthy probiotics promote immunity and reduce infections, which is especially important within the intestines. When depleted, a residual infection may remain in the intestines and often a new fungal infection or "thrush" develops.

Mary related to this story. I also told her that her chronic low-grade infections made her intestines weak and "leaky" — food particles can cross the intestinal lining and get into the blood before being properly digested, making food intolerances worse. The immune system has to protect the body from this undigested food, and IgG antibodies are one means to do this.

Now Mary understood the flow of how food intolerances can develop after stress, infection, and antibiotics. She was ready to follow a diet, get help clearing up the infections, and rebuild her intestines and immunity. We treated her gut, as she had excessive bacterial overgrowth in her small intestine, as well as fungal problems. After completing a four-month recovery program, her fibromyalgia symptoms improved.

A Vicious Cycle

When low-grade or recurring infections are allowed to continue to develop, the immune system gets more and more inflamed. At this point it becomes a vicious cycle, as more antibiotics are prescribed to treat the new and remaining infections and inflammations, but the antibiotics again reduce probiotic levels and weaken immunity.

Over time, antibiotic-resistant bacteria roam free in the intestines and cause inflammation problems in the bowels, sinus, or tonsils. The person may then become susceptible to intestinal parasites. These all cause inflammation, swelling, and low-grade episodes of intestinal pain. Inflammation is associated with inflammatory hormones called cytokines. Certain cytokines (IL-17 and IL-6) will activate allergic and food intolerance reactions, cause chronic fatigue and can produce symptoms anywhere in the body.

If these conditions continue to persist — blood sugar swings, chronic pains and inflammation, fatigue, intestinal upset, and liver stress —and especially if drugs like anti-inflammatories and steroids are given — the liver becomes so overloaded it eventually cannot detoxify the body. The body then becomes sensitive to chemicals found in things such as smoke, alcohol, yeast, fungi, and fumes. Symptoms aggravate when exposed to these chemicals.

Somewhere along this path, mental and emotional symptoms also arise. At first it might be mood swings and poor concentration. Then comes fatigue, lowered motivation, and depression as the basket of symptoms seem to have no end and no commonly-understood medical solution. Many drug treatments actually make the situation worse, such as the antibiotics already mentioned. Most anti-inflammatories cause the intestines to become more "leaky." Steroids also weaken immunity. Pain medications like paracetamol/acetaminophen (Panadol) further damages the liver and makes it more toxic. Anti-depressants and Ritalin completely overlook the cause.

These underlying immune stresses can progress to more serious diseases – the auto-immune diseases - if they are left untreated.

Breaking the Cycle

The most common treatment recommended for food intolerance is to cut the questionable food out of the diet. However, permanently avoiding a large selection of food is not sensible, as good nutrition is vital to fight chronic illness. Repeatedly eating only a small selection of food tends to make the intolerances worse and the root cause is never properly addressed.

So what can you do to break the cycle? The illness starts in the intestines, so this is where the healing needs to start. Re-establishing immunity is the key, and you can do so with the help of zinc, probiotics, omega oils, and Vitamins A and D. Balancing your stressful lifestyle and minimising junk foods are also important steps to rebuild your immunity.

First, infections and intolerance must be identified through tests. Removing infections is the most critical part to recovery. Clearing digestive infections such as Candida can take up to several months. During this time — usually up to 12 weeks — it is necessary to cut out the intolerance-producing food.

After removing the infections and food intolerance, repairing the gut lining and re-inoculating with plenty of probiotics is the next phase. Within a few more weeks, the immune system regains healthy function, pains reduce or go away completely, energy returns, and people report feeling like they are feeling like they haven't done in years.

In future articles of Wellness News, we will share more ways to take care of the gut and overcome food intolerances, "leaky gut," and fungal, bacterial, and parasitic intestinal infections. Stay tuned!

Make positive changes for your health and wellness, one step at a time. We at IMI can help you protect your health and achieve long-term goals of total wellness. Visit our website at www.imi.com.hk, or stay connected with us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/imihk. For more information, call 2523 7121.