Our Best Ally Is Also Our Worst Enemy

Doc’s note: Today, I’m sharing an essay from my friend Dr. Param Dedhia. He’s a physician trained at Johns Hopkins who practices both modern and traditional medicine – an integrative doctor. Param serves as the Weight Loss Program leader and the director of sleep medicine at Canyon Ranch, a wellness retreat in Tucson, Arizona.

In the essay below, Param explains the real secret of your body’s immune system

Health is an inside job.

What I mean by that is much of our overall health relies on what’s going on in our gut. Today, I want to look specifically at our gut’s relationship with food. Food is our source for the nutrients that we need to thrive… but it can also destroy us.

Our immune system has several parts, like the tonsils, lymph nodes, and spleen. These are all made of lymphoid tissue – a collection of specialized immune system cells. These monitor for and attack threats like bacteria and viruses.

The digestive system and its inner lining specifically contain the largest amount of lymphoid tissue in the body.

When the immune system is turned on, it triggers inflammation. Inflammation is the body’s normal, healthy response to an infection or injury. It’s the body’s defense from bacteria, parasites, or viruses. This is also the body’s response to heal and repair. The immune system shelters us from our outside environment, and it also protects our inside environment.

This system is an elegant and innate knowledge of the body being able to know the difference between self and not self. The chemistry of the immune system can be provoked to essentially attack anything. When it’s working well, it attacks anything foreign to the body.

But when the body’s immune system sees certain foods as “foreign,” it revs up to attack the food. This is what we call a food allergy. It can then go overboard and attack itself. The inflammation turns chronic, which is the root cause of many illnesses from head to toe, as it is integrated into many pathways. The worst, of course, is heart disease.

Now, here is an important concept to appreciate: Inflammation in one part of the body can spread and trigger an exaggerated immune attack to another part of the body. When inflammation occurs in our gut, the area between each of the cells that lines the intestinal tract becomes injured. This is a big problem.

When the area between the cells is damaged, products from the digestive tract “leak” into the body. Some call this “leaky gut syndrome.” The more sophisticated term is intestinal permeability. As a result, triggered cells “leak” into the body, spreading inflammation.

As doctors, we were taught to look for gastrointestinal symptoms for food allergies, like belching, bloating, and cramping. But these leaks of inflamed cells can also lead to symptoms like:

  • Brain fog
  • Fatigue
  • Joint pain
  • Eczema
  • Hives
  • Itchy skin

This gets difficult as so many other things could be causing these signs and symptoms that are not located in the gut.

In addition to food allergies, we also have food sensitivity. Both allergy and sensitivity are part of the same continuum. For every person with a true allergy, there are many, many more with a sensitivity.

An allergy is the full-blown attack whereas sensitivity is a less vigorous response. However, even the inflammation from a milder response over time can cause damage.

The most widely talked about one today is gluten. Gluten is the protein found in wheat, barley and oats. It’s what gives these grains structure. The gluten protein looks very similar to the lining of the digestive tract.

If the body reacts to the wheat, barley or oats, it can also attack the inner lining of the digestive tract. This can injure or even strip the inner lining. This allergy is called celiac disease. It’s a genetic based allergy, and only affects 1% of the world’s population. Many who say they suffer from the allergy simply have the sensitivity.

The most common offending foods go beyond wheat, barley and oats. They include:

  • Dairy
  • Eggs
  • Seafood
  • Shellfish
  • Nuts (especially peanut, which technically is a legume)
  • Soy 

Yet any food can lead to a food allergy. I used to run many different lab tests for food allergies. Candidly, I do not anymore. But blood work sometimes identifies the offending food… and other times it simply shows a food that was consumed frequently.

So, the problem here is that I didn’t know if the positive blood work meant it was an allergy or simply a commonly eaten food. These test results can be frustrating. I have seen results where every single food was listed.

How can someone be allergic to all of those foods? That’s impossible!

This is why I now recommend people see an allergist for skin testing instead.

One downside of an allergy test is that it may not identify the foods that you are sensitive to. As you may find out, this is not easy to discover and not always obvious. Keeping a food log, or tracking your signs and symptoms can also help you identify the foods you’re sensitive to, even when a test won’t.

So, what should you do if you experience any of the symptoms of allergy or sensitivity I listed above? Consider the following…

Again, keep a log of meals and symptoms to see if there are any associations. Include what time you eat and what time you notice the symptoms. In particular, keep an eye out for the common trigger foods: gluten foods, dairy, eggs, seafood, shellfish, nuts and soy.

If a food is a possible cause for allergy or sensitivity, then we take the next step. As a doctor, I would recommend my patients to not eat that food or collection of ingredients for one to two months. After this time, I’d ask them to reintroduce the foods one at a time for three days straight. If a reaction returns, then we have found the culprit food or ingredient.

If you can’t pin down a certain food or group of foods, or if your symptoms are severe, discuss your symptoms with your doctor to determine if a colonoscopy (a scope from below), endoscopy (a scope from above), stool test looking for bacteria or parasites, or a breath test looking for either hydrogen and/or methane (as indictors of bacterial overgrowth) are recommended.

As we intend for food to be our medicine, we must also know that it can be our poison. This is a topic that has rapidly advanced in the past 10 years, and will continue to do so. I still believe in using food as a way to improve our health, but we need to understand the best foods to help us on a personal level.

Best always,

Param

P.S. In February, Doc and Dr. Steve Sjuggerud will be joining me at Canyon Ranch for the first Canyon Ranch Immersion Week, hosted by Stansberry Research. You’ll hear from Doc, Steve, and wellness architects to help you start living a healthier, wealthier life. Learn more at http://stansberryimmersion.com/.