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.

Post-Run Pancakes, and creating a food community

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Over the past few months, William and I have been hosting, or being treated to, many shared meals with friends. We’ve been living in Eugene for over two years now, and though we still don’t love the city or consider it our long-term home, we’re slowly finding ways to make a community while we’re here. In almost every way, that developing of community centers around food.

We have a couple friends here that, unlike virtually any others so far, I trust can cook for me. I won’t be unknowingly eating gluten and getting cross contaminated, and I’ll enjoy the food and company. I won’t stress about what will be on the menu beforehand and if I’ll have to miss out on half the spread, or need to plan to take a side dish just in case. I can go about the whole experience being totally relaxed and spontaneous. This experience, though I know is the norm for those who don’t have food allergies and/or a history of disordered eating, feels like the biggest of victories for me, and one I don’t take lightly.

Like many people who have struggled with an eating disorder, I’ve always been drawn to food. I grew up just completely fascinated with it, always experimenting and exploring, always wanting to know more. Nothing about that has changed but the sharing of it, either at a friend or relatives’, or just spontaneously going out to eat, has shifted dramatically in the last decade as I began to develop more tactics for avoiding eating with others, or later, when I realized many of my health problems were attributed to food intolerances, and most friends and family no longer knew how to prepare food that was gluten, dairy, and for the most part meat-free.

That left me (and still leaves me), generally really stressed and anxious about gatherings that involve food. I don’t like to be the center of attention. I don’t enjoy having to make special requests. But I also don’t enjoy going to meals knowing I won’t really get to participate in them. As much as many of us have heard the advice to just focus on the people rather than the food, there’s something about the food that draws us together and opting out of that aspect is to me, a little like trying to arrive at a complete and finished puzzle, without having half the puzzle pieces.

Related to this, I like what Aran Goyoaga of Cannelle et Vanille said recently in an interview on the emotion of food:

I think my eating disorder and having left my roots really left me in limbo for many years. I stripped myself of identity so I could know who I am inside and what my purpose is while I am here. I have realized that the vulnerability I have felt the last few years by sharing a bit more of my true story of anxiety and depression have connected me to people and myself in ways I didn’t think were possible. And it’s interesting that I did this through cooking and sharing food, which for many years had such an emotional weight attached to it. It’s through the act of cooking for others and sharing a table that we can make time to connect at deeper levels. We can access levels of empathy and intimacy that are hard to feel in other ways. Also let’s not forget that food has tremendous healing energy. It can ground us and make us stronger or totally mess us up both physically and emotionally.

Other than being really grateful for friends that love to eat and cook similarly to me, and for those that go out of their way to accommodate my gluten and dairy-free needs by learning how to cook and/or bake in this way just so I can be included, I’m learning that being more assertive, giving, and willing to educate others, both about food intolerances and allergies, and about the mental health aspects that some of us bring to eating, are really important. Both of these often parallel topics are ones that I feel a little more called to having a conversation about with friends over a good meal, rather than brushing them under the table and pretending everything is just okay.

With that, The Recipe Redux invited us to to make and share bread this month. Though I’ve alluded to my current sourdough fixation here and on instagram many times over the last year, I’m still in the experimenting stage — because the art and perfection of slow bread is something I’ve long been called to and having a finished recipe that is ready to share still feels a long way off. I do have a really decent sourdough pizza crust going lately but given this dreary, cold, late winter season, my own personal need for comfort foods in the way of pancakes, and past history of pancakes making quite the meal to share with others, this quick little bread-based meal is one I hope you get the time to make. It makes my favorite gluten-free and vegan pancakes so far, is 100% whole-grain, and with the help of a coffee/spice grinder, most of the flour is fresh milled so it’s really quite nutrient-packed. I’ve also taken out all the oil and added in antioxidant-rich sunflower seed butter which gives it a really nice rich flavor. And because I’m still working my way through the last of the season’s winter squash, I find a really nice topping is a spiced squash and sunflower butter puree.

All together, both because these are comforting yet wholesome, and packed full of all the antioxidant nutrients (vitamins A, E, selenium, zinc), B-vitamins, magnesium, and iron that athletes need, I think these are great with the winter squash topping for after workout meals (that’s running for me), or perhaps just to share with a friend or loved one when you both need good conversation and lots of late-winter nourishment.

Enjoy!

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Post Run Pancakes, serves about 2
These make nice, fluffy, whole-grain pancakes. If you’re without or adverse to a little xanthan gum, either leave out or add a little more ground flax. They won’t be quite as fluffy, but still really good!
 
1/3 cup / 60 grams millet
1/4 cup / 40 grams buckwheat
1/4 cup / 20 grams chickpea flour
1/4 tsp. xanthan gum
1/8 tsp. salt
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 Tbs. ground flax mixed with 3 Tbs. warm water
3/4-1 cup non-dairy milk
1 Tbs. raw apple cider vinegar
1 Tbs. sunflower seed butter
coconut oil, for cooking
  • Whisk the vinegar into 3/4 cup of non-dairy milk and set aside for a few minutes.
  • Heat your skillet or griddle where you will be cooking the pancakes. They’ll cook over medium-high heat.
  • In a coffee/spice grinder or food processor, add buckwheat and millet grains and grind until they reach a smooth flour consistency. Then, mix them in a medium bowl with the chickpea flour, xanthan gum, salt, baking powder, and baking soda.
  • In a separate bowl, whisk together the flax-water mixture, milk, and sunflower butter. Pour the liquids into the dry ingredients and whisk lightly until combined. Add more milk as needed.
  • Lightly oil the skillet with coconut oil, and use about 1/3 cup of batter per pancake. Flip the pancakes when the bubbles appear on top and the bottoms are browned.
  • Cook on the second side until cooked through and browned on the bottom.

Spiced Winter Squash Puree
1-2 cups mashed/pureed winter squash
2 Tbs. sunflower seed butter
a few dashes each of cinnamon, ginger, turmeric, cloves, and black pepper
a pinch of sea salt

  • In a little dish, mash together all the ingredients and season to taste with sweetener, as desired. Serve over the pancakes.

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