To Test or Not to Test? A comprehensive approach to the treatment of food sensitivities with Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine
We get asked about food sensitivity testing a lot in our practice. People see an ad, or hear from a friend that testing their food sensitivities solved a lot of their health issues. This sounds like an easy fix right ? Test to see what foods you are sensitive to, remove those foods, and all your symptoms go away. Unfortunately it’s not that simple. Figuring out what foods feel good in your body, which ones don’t can be very helpful. It’s also important to make sure that the way that we go about modifying our food intake supports healing, and not harm to the body and mind.
Let’s start by talking about the difference between a food allergy and a food sensitivity.
A food allergy is caused by a type of immune reaction that is known as an IgE (immunoglobulin E) reaction. This is the classic type of food allergy people think of with things like a peanut or shellfish allergy. An IgE allergy happens quickly, within minutes to hours after consuming the food. The IgE antibodies travel and communicate with other cells in your immune system, such as mast cells and basophils. In this case, the IgE tells these cells to dissolve and release their contents such as histamine and other cytokines. In this case, the reaction occurs mostly in the nose, lungs, throat, and skin. It creates the classic allergy symptoms of swelling, itching, hives, rashes, difficulty swallowing and breathing. This type of allergy can be life threatening, and most people who have a known IgE food or environmental allergies are on medication, or carry an Epipen for emergencies. This is not the type of reaction we are testing for with a food sensitivity test.
A food sensitivity test looks at a different reaction in the immune system, known as an IgG or IgA mediated reaction.
Let’s break those down really quick.
IgA (immunoglobulin A) is a part of our innate immune system. It is supposed to be present in all of our mucus membranes and plays a key role in helping our bodies fight infection. It’s part of the reason we are not constantly sick from all the little bacteria we are exposed to daily in the food we consume.
High IgA is an indicator of chronic inflammation in the digestive tract. The underlying reasons for this might be:
- Overconsumption of alcohol
- Chronic or acute infection
- chronic dysbiosis (imbalance of the naturally occurring flora in your gut)
IgG (immunoglobulin G) This type of reaction typically occurs many hours, or days after consumption of a food, or exposure to other type of pathogen. These antibodies help us develop our immune memory if you will. We are supposed to have these antibodies in our digestive tract, because they are a key part of why our bodies tolerate food at all. This 2016 study does a great job explaining that we are supposed to see IgG antibodies in response to consuming food. It indicates that our immune system “remembers” it as a safe substance, and not a harmful one. The problem comes in when we see chronic inflammation in the gut, increased permeability, and incomplete digestion of proteins. This is where food sensitivity testing can give us helpful information.
Food sensitivity testing does not determine that you are allergic to specific foods. It does not mean you need to permanently remove these foods from your diet. It gives us information about the state of inflammation, and the integrity of the lining of the digestive tract.
When we see greatly elevated IgG response to a food on a food sensitivity test it tells us a few possible things.
- That the digestive enzymes that are supposed to completely break down the proteins in food are possibly insufficient, allowing larger than ideal proteins to travel through the intestine. Ideally proteins are very broken down into tiny particles that the gut can absorb and extract nutrients from.
- That the lining of the gut has been damaged and has increased permeability. This allows larger proteins to leak out and cause more inflammation response than normal. (this is “leaky gut”
- There is an underlying cause of chronic inflammation in the digestive tract. (i.e.) chronically elevated stress, overconsumption of alcohol, nutrient deficiencies, parasites, bacterial overgrowth, and more
So what do we do with the result of our food sensitivity test ? The takeaway here is that if you come up reactive to a lot of foods on an IgG food sensitivity test, restricting those foods is just one small part of the healing.
It is true that when you have greatly elevated IgG antibodies it indicates a state of chronic inflammation. This increased inflammation can present as uncomfortable symptoms like chronic joint pain, headaches, fatigue, brain fog, anxiety, depressive mood symptoms, IBS, eczema, and much more. Removing the most highly reactive foods for a short period, 4-6 weeks in most cases, often does lower the overall inflammatory load, and resolve a lot of symptoms. But what next? How do you ensure you don’t become reactive to different foods in the future? How do you know the inflammation won’t come back if you try introducing those foods again?
This is where acupuncture and Chinese medicine come in to provide a root cause approach to healing the digestive system.
Chinese medicine theory makes no mention of the concept of a food sensitivity. It does however, talk a lot about the importance of the digestive system in maintaining our overall health and well being. The concept of gut/brain health isn’t new. Chinese medicine dates back over 2,000 years, and even then they recognized that if the digestive organs were extremely imbalanced, the mind would be as well. Of course, now we have Western medicine clearly stating things like “80% of your serotonin is made in your gut” so if your gut is messed up, you can bet your mood won’t be as great as it could be.
Chinese medicine tells us that in order for our digestion to be functioning optimally, we need optimal temperature, not too hot or cold. Optimal balance of dryness and moisture, movement and stillness.
If you’ve ever experienced constipation, that’s a super clear example of what can happen when there isn’t enough movement and moisture in the system. We could get super technical on this, but you get the idea. If all these things are balanced, the food comes in, we break it down, extract energy from it, take what we need, and expel what we don’t need.
Healing your gut, and overcoming food sensitivities long term, requires a complete approach to address all underlying causes, and restore balance to the digestive system.
If you choose to do food sensitivity testing, remember that food restriction should be temporary. This should be an empowering process, rather than a restricting one. Focus on the WHY the reaction to the food is there, not just the food itself. Work with a practitioner who can help you dig deeper into the root causes of why your digestion is unwell in the first place.
When working with patients to heal their food sensitivities we create a customized plan to address their unique concerns. Some of the most common tools we use are.
- Acupuncture to alleviate stress, balance the nervous system, restore healthy gut movement, and reduce inflammation in the digestive tract.
- Customized Chinese herb formulations to heal the lining of the digestive tract, optimize breakdown of proteins, promote health circulation and warmth, and support a diverse microbiome.
- Lifestyle modification to address any underlying daily habits that are harming your digestive health. Commonly addressing overconsumption of alcohol, smoking, poor sleep hygiene, and building healthy stress management skills. We utilize the NADA protocol, which is an auricular (ear) acupuncture protocol that has been clinically shown to be effective in the treatment of addiction and PTSD. Many patients report immediate improvement in mood and sleep patterns with this treatment, as well as a reduction in cravings and substance use.