Fire and Battle in the Gut – the immune response and your long list of foods that cause reactions

It seems like every year around this time, I find myself in a phase of asking myself, “what food am I reacting to?”. After half a decade or more of asking this question annually, and over the years slowly pin-pointing it down, I’ve gotten a little wiser.

William and I have grown a fairly substantial garden every year since 2016, and I’ve had some version of one in community garden plots, on balconies or patios, college rental backyards, and even dorm room windowsills since I left home as a teenager. Even before that, my mom has always grown a large garden, so having super-fresh summer produce has literally been a happening my whole life. My mom’s favorite thing to grow, from my perspective anyway, has always been heirloom tomatoes, so all the big, fat, juicy tomatoes have also been a long-time staple of summer and early fall. Yum.

But for the last several years, it has become apparent that I may like tomatoes, but they don’t quite like me—in the amounts that any tomato-growing person would need to consume them anyway.

So each year I’ve slowly reduced how many tomato plants I’ve grown. This year, instead of pulling the plants after two solid months of heavy tomato production, the thick smoke and hazardous air days earlier this month had me pulling the one plant we grew early. So there was only one month of tomato production, and I gave a bunch away just to keep up.

And yet still, by the time I pulled the plant and sent it to the compost, every time I had a tomato-based meal I was getting itchy ears and hot, flushing of my face within minutes. At the point where these symptoms were the worst, we were also in extremely hazardous air quality—likely even with the blessed indoor air purifiers—and I had been eating other nightshades regularly too; we also grow a few peppers, eggplant, and this year, potatoes—William’s pride and joy.

And while the itchy ears and facial flushing are classic allergic reactions, every year before this, I react later, after many more weeks of eating tomatoes and other nightshades, and with my more consistent go-to digestive symptom: a dully, achy, distracting pain.

Why am I sharing all this? Well, because I know many of you can relate to having various food sensitivities or allergies and not always knowing what you’re reacting to or how to deal with it—and because let’s be clear, eliminating one food after another until you’re down to a handful of “safe” foods is not the best long-term answer.  

For anyone that read my last digestion-focused article, you’ll remember part of the nervous system traverses through the gut. You may have also read that about 70 percent of our immune system is located in or around the digestive system. This is why when our digestive barriers or defenses are worn down, the immune system, whose very job is to determine what is you and what is not—and to attack what’s not—begins to take on substances that ordinarily it shouldn’t, like foods or substances from the environment.

The reason for this is partly because the lining of the gut is only one cell thick. If that sounds especially thin, it is. Just below the gut lining lies a part of the immune system called the gut-associated lymphoid tissue (GALT), whose job is to help absorb nutrients. We also have a part of the immune system called the mucous-associated lymphoid tissue (MALT) which resides in the mucosal lining, as well as in other mucousy tissues (nose, bronchia, etc.). When the gut and mucous-associated lymphoid tissues’ membranes are structurally strong, then we have more ability to withstand ‘stressors,’ both actual stress and substances that might stress the body internally. When these lymphoid tissues are structurally compromised, then bacteria, food particles that cause a negative reaction, and other inappropriate pathogenic molecules get into our blood. And the cellular version of battle ensues.

Cue reactions to tomatoes, other nightshades, wheat and gluten, dairy, corn, peanuts, soy, and on and on. The immune system turns on against otherwise harmless foods.

One more thing to know before I get into what we can control about this immune response:

There are layers to the immune system with first line defense, second, what follows, etc. Likewise, when we do blood or skin tests for food sensitivities and allergies, there are different substances to test for.
Secretory IgA (sIgA), is the main way that the mucous-associated lymphoid tissue gives the message to the immune system to initiate battle. Secretory IgA are antibodies in the gut mucosa that are on constant alert for foreign substances—think of them as guards for the castle walls of your mucous-immune tissue. They initiate a non-specific response. When the secretory IgA antibodies aren’t showing up to the job or are overwhelmed, the IgG antibodies next kick in. They are what we’ll call a second line of defense and cause reactions to specific foods or substances, but perhaps not immediately. That’s why in the past, I could eat tomatoes for weeks before having any reactions and when those reactions occurred, they were hours or even days after the ‘enemy’ tomato made its appearance at the castle walls.

When IgG antibodies get overwhelmed, it is time for the IgE antibodies. These are what we consider true allergies. That’s the classic itchy throat, swelling, mucous and nasal drip, hives, itchy ears and/or eyes, flushing, and anaphylaxis symptoms. Not what any of us want to experience.

Of what we currently know of the immune system, people don’t develop true IgE allergies until all the other systems have broken down—and when food sensitivities are cleared up—that’s the IgG response—the true IgE allergy response can either partially or fully resolve. Good news when I want to eat a tomato symptom-free, or when you want to go back to enjoying any of the various foods you’ve thought you’d have to avoid forever.

So going back to factors that we can control and/or play a role. They include:

– Genetics. Many conditions such as celiac, inflammatory bowel diseases (crohn’s, ulcerative colitis, etc.), and most other autoimmune conditions have a genetic component. While that can seem discouraging, we are learning more about how to modify gene expression through what’s known as epigenetics—using food, nutrients, and environment (like stress reduction), to help us overcome otherwise ‘risky’ genetics.

– Gut bacteria and dysbiosis. Both “good” gut bacteria in the wrong place, and an imbalance between the amount of beneficial and disease-producing microbes are factors we can control. Examples include bacterial, fungal, and parasitic infections. They are far more common than most of us think.

– What we eat on a daily basis. The diet of most individuals is high in refined carbohydrates and poor-quality fats and meats, and too low in fiber, vegetables, whole-grains, beans and legumes, fruit, and nuts and seeds—the very foods that are rich in anti-inflammatory nutrients and feed good gut bacteria.

– Leaky gut. When we get “holes” in that one-cell-thick gut lining, we’re going to experience increased inflammation and breakdowns/battle in the immune system. Stress, of all causes, plays a huge role in this.

Now that you know a little more about the immune system, let me know if you have questions, or if this helped clarify why with healing the gut and turning off the immune system response, you might be able to eat some of the foods you’ve thought you’d have to always avoid.

The immune response and subsequent inflammation is one of the five primary categories of digestive imbalances I look for when working with individuals clinically. Often when we’re experiencing chronic GI distress, there will be imbalances in several categories, and we begin working on the areas that appear most pertinent. I shared about the nervous system’s role here, and I’ll explain the other three categories of digestive imbalance in future articles.

And If you’re tired of dealing with your wonky GI, I invite you to reach out to me for more personalized support.

References:
1: Lipski, L. (2012). Digestive Wellness (4th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw Hill.

chamomile + dried plum nut butter bars

Last week I shared about the connection between the gut and the nervous system. After hearing from several that it was helpful, I’ve been thinking about the use of herbs in particular for nervous system and gut support.

Herbs in the category called nervines really shine here. They are the herbs that specifically affect the nervous system. While there is a giant list of herbs that can be used for nervous system support depending on where and what type of symptoms are showing up for an individual as well as the person’s energetics, chamomile, skullcap, lavender, holy basil / tulsi, lemon balm, and California poppy are some of my personal favorites. When we get to the point of really using herbs medicinally to promote balance, we often need them in larger amounts such as at least three cups of tea daily for several weeks, or an herbal tincture, large amounts of herbal powders, etc. It becomes like taking medicine, only with no side effects, nutritional interactions or depletions (when administered correctly).

But before we get to that stage where it’s best to have either more personal experience or guidance by a trained professional to take herbs at a medicinal level, many of us can benefit from incorporating more herbs into our everyday foods. This is what a lot of our ancestors did by collecting herbs that grew nearby and incorporating them into household remedies and cooking. And that’s what I’ve done here.

This is a base recipe for a nut/seed butter and dried fruit bar that I routinely make to enjoy as a snack. In this particular version, I added chamomile flowers and dried plums, two foods with a particular affinity for gut health. Many individuals enjoy chamomile as an evening wind-down tea but if you steep it long enough or bite into a whole chamomile flower, you’ll notice a definite bitter taste. That bitter component is important for gut health! We need bitter flavors to help the digestive system function properly, since the bitter taste stimulates the digestive system by activating gastric juices and the liver so we can break down and absorb our food.

Additionally, you might have noticed the strong, fragrant smell of chamomile in freshly brewed tea. The volatile oils in herbs which have an intense smell gives them an action that is called carminative, giving them the ability to promote a healthy digestive system by soothing inflamed tissues, giving relief from GI cramps and spasms, and helping relieve indigestion, bloating, gas, and nervous/anxious tummys. A couple other of my favorite carminative herbs/spices are fennel seeds, cardamom, and lemon balm, which can all be added to these bars instead of and/or in addition to the chamomile (amounts would need to be adjusted for taste, however).

A couple other ways to incorporate more chamomile into your days is in chamomile tea with ginger and licorice, chamomile tea simply by itself, and chamomile added to morning oatmeal. This apple, walnut, chamomile version is pretty outstanding. Overall, I highly encourage you to incorporate more nervous and digestive system supporting herbs into your meals.

Chamomile + Dried Plum Nut Butter Bars, makes 4
This is a great base recipe to experiment with different flavor combinations and incorporate various herbs into your daily snacks. If you’d rather skip the protein powder, try an equal amount of hemp seeds instead since they’re high in protein compared to many other nuts and seeds. Remember, protein is important in small to medium amounts throughout the day, and helps to balance out the heavy sugar and fat that most snacks contain. These also work great both before and after athletic activity as a quick fueling option, as they’re balanced in their carbohydrate to protein ratio.

3 Tbs. / 50 grams nut butter of choice (cashew or coconut work great here)
1/4 cup / 45 grams dried plums
1/3 cup / 45 grams dates, pitted
3 Tbs. / 30 grams hemp protein (or similar unflavored protein powder, such as plain pea protein)
3 Tbs. loose chamomile flowers
1 cup / 30 grams crispy rice cereal (or 1/3 cup oatmeal)
1 tsp. honey or maple syrup
1/8 tsp. salt

  • In a food processor, combine all ingredients except for a small amount of the rice cereal or oatmeal. Puree all the ingredients until they come together and are slightly sticky to the touch. You might need to add up to 1 Tablespoon water.
  • Then add the final amount of cereal or oatmeal and pulse until it is incorporated but not finely pureed.
  • Turn out into a small rectangular dish and press in. Cut into bars and eat, or store in the fridge and cut and eat as needed. Otherwise, you can certainly make these into energy balls instead if you’d like a circular shape.
  • These keep well for at least a couple weeks.

The nervous system is one of the five primary categories of digestive imbalances I look for when working with individuals clinically. Often when we’re experiencing chronic GI distress, there will be imbalances in several categories, and we begin working on the areas that appear most pertinent. I’ll explain the other categories of digestive imbalance in future articles. And If you’re tired of dealing with your wonky GI, I invite you to reach out to me for more personalized support.

connecting the gut and the nervous system

I had an emotional couple of days last week. If you know anything about the Enneagram personality archetyping, I’m most definitely a type 4, so deep and vast emotions are a familiarity for me. That aside, I was emotional. I cried a fair bit and felt my own little volcano of melancholy come out in periodic waves. One such wave was on a run last Thursday morning. Most long-term runners know certain runs can be incredibly therapeutic and where we work through challenging emotions. This was one of those.

When I returned to the house after finishing and began my cool down stretch, I had a familiar mild, dull pain in my abdomen set in, and it continued throughout the day. As an old familiar, I knew exactly the cause of the pain when I first noticed it. As a sensitive child, I grew up with routine anxious ‘tummy aches,’ on Sundays before a new school week began, couldn’t eat before stressful events, and generally would feel knots in my middle when emotionally distraught.

Unsurprisingly, there’s a reason for this.

For anyone that likes to show up to an athletic race early in the morning, stand in line at the porta potty, and then hope to put your best foot forward in your event of choice, or perhaps engage in a similar nervous-inducing event in another area of life like a job interview, you know that when you’re anxious, nervous, or otherwise stressed, digestion is quite a bit off. That’s because the gut and the brain are intimately connected. The nervous system has several branches and one section, the enteric nervous system (ENS), is often called ‘the second brain.’ The ENS is the section that runs through our digestive system and is connected to the actual brain through a large nerve that runs through are central body and communicates in both directions. This is called the vagus nerve.  When we have a really emotional episode, like I did, our brain can send chemical messages to the gut that change our gut bacteria, leading to low-grade gut inflammation and possibly GI distress. Similarly, if we have a particular imbalance in the gut itself—through food that doesn’t sit well or isn’t best for us, or inflammation and excessive permeability to the gut lining for another reason, we often notice behavioral changes as well. For example, persons that have chronic GI distress often also experience one or several mental health symptoms, including anxiety, depression, fatigue, confusion, brain fog, poor memory, migraines, and more.


When we have continued stress, whether in our body or in our mind, the nervous system slows down or impairs digestive function. This is why it’s best to not eat when we’re in a stressful mindset or running out the door in the morning before work or while rushing between meetings. And why one simple way to improve digestion is to single-task while we eat. That is, eat in a quiet, peaceful environment and do only that. Just eat, enjoy, and actually chew the meal. And its why major stressful life events often precede major health symptoms and then diagnoses. If you struggle with digestive conditions such as one of the Irritable Bowel Diseases (Crohn’s, Ulcerative Colitis, Diverticulitis, etc.), IBS, GERD, ulcers, chronic constipation or diarrhea, and any autoimmune disease, your condition will often respond favorably to stress-reduction techniques. For athletes with any of these conditions, we often argue that our physical activity is our source of stress reduction. That may be true—in theory—but often our activity load is contributing stress when our physical and mental systems are way out of balance.

True rest and relaxation, such as spending an hour or more per day doing absolutely nothing, deep breathing, meditation or prayer practices, spending quiet time in nature, gardening, yoga, painting, or other quiet activities without a screen are sometimes exactly what we need most to begin digestive healing – not a fancy, stressful, rigid new eating plan. (Gasp! I know; how dare I say that as someone that works with people on food!)

Otherwise, I love to work with herbs for the nervous system. In fact, nervines, the category of herbs that work on the nervous system, are by far the ones I work with and recommend the most. Lavender in this blueberry lavender smoothie bowl, and skullcap, tulsi / Holy Basil, lemon balm, and lavender in this stress-reduction tea or herbal latte are just a couple relax-inducing herbal ideas to consider.

The nervous system is one of the five primary categories of digestive imbalances I look for when working with individuals clinically. Often when we’re experiencing chronic GI distress, there will be imbalances in several categories, and we begin working on the areas that appear most pertinent. I’ll explain the other categories of digestive imbalance in future articles. And If you’re tired of dealing with your wonky GI, I invite you to reach out to me for more personalized support.

References:
1: Lipski, L. (2012). Digestive Wellness (4th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw Hill.