Food allergies reportedly affect over 50 million Americans, resulting in a wide range of symptoms ranging from mild digestive distress to severe anaphylaxis. While genetics may be the main contributor to food allergies, researchers still are not sure what specifically causes certain people to be more sensitive to foods than others. Early research suggests that food allergies may originate from a leaky gut.
But before we delve into leaky gut and how it might contribute to food allergies, we need to explain the difference between “good” and “bad” intestinal permeability in context of the human lifespan.
What is Leaky Gut?
When every mammal is born, the stomach and small intestine are “leaky” and this is completely normal. This allows a mother’s colostrum to pass freely into the newborn’s body through the microscopic holes and into the bloodstream (“good” permeability). Her colostrum contains immune components that jumpstart the infant’s immune system and seed the gut with beneficial bacteria. This process occurs for approximately 72 hours, after which, the growth factors in colostrum close up (seal) the holes and prevent anything from crossing over into the bloodstream.
Thus, when a mother’s milk begins to be expressed (by around day 4), none of the milk proteins will cross-over and cause an allergy. Extended and/or exclusive breastfeeding helps ensure that the intestinal barrier remains strong and healthy. And for this reason, pediatricians recommend against introducing foods too early, lest they create a food allergy, such as cow’s milk.
As an adult, your intestinal lining plays an important role in the absorption of vitamins and minerals from your food into your bloodstream while acting as a barrier against toxins, undigested food particles, bacteria, and waste products. When your small intestines experience excess damage, the tight junctions keeping the lining strong begin to thin, resulting in increased permeability (“bad” permeability). Increased intestinal permeability allows those toxins, harmful substances, and undigested food to enter your bloodstream, triggering the body’s immune response that may result in chronic inflammation and other issues over time.
Symptoms of a leaky gut can vary from person to person, and may include:
- Digestive issues
- Skin problems
- General fatigue
In addition to these symptoms, a leaky gut may potentially result in food sensitivities, food allergies, and/or autoimmune conditions.
Understanding Food Allergies and Sensitivities
Normally, when you consume food, it passes through your digestive system without any issues. When you have a food allergy, your immune system mistakenly identifies certain foods as threats (foreign invaders) and triggers an inflammatory reaction. The immune system releases immunoglobulin E, an antibody, to fight off the food allergen, but those antibodies and the chemicals they produce (known as histamines) end up causing damage to healthy tissue. The common symptoms of food allergies include:
- Tingling or itching sensations in and around the mouth
- Itching and hives
- Swelling in areas of the body
- Feeling dizzy or lightheaded
- Gastrointestinal issues (diarrhea, vomiting, abdominal pain)
- Trouble breathing
Severe food allergy reactions may even result in anaphylaxis, which is a life-threatening condition. Symptoms include:
- Constricted airways
- Shock, resulting in a severe drop in blood pressure
- Rapid pulse
- Sudden loss of consciousness
Food allergies and sensitivities can be inherited or acquired, and not all of them begin in childhood. Adult-onset food allergies and sensitivities are actually more common than you think. Surveys conducted by the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Illinois showed that about 48 percent of subjects first experienced at least one of their food allergies as an adult. The exact cause of these later onset allergies is not well known, but leaky gut may play a role.
The Role of Leaky Gut in Food Sensitivities
When you have increased intestinal permeability, undigested food particles can enter your bloodstream more easily. Over time, food particles “leaking” into the bloodstream can confuse immune cells and trigger reactions to usually harmless foods, resulting in full-blown food allergies. The worst part is that food allergies may contribute to further inflammation in the gut, exacerbating leaky gut symptoms, which then results in further food sensitivities. This leads to a vicious, seemingly endless cycle.
Addressing Food Allergies Caused by a Leaky Gut
While avoiding foods that trigger your allergic reactions may be the simplest way to address your issues, that isn’t always the most practical solution as cross contact and cross contamination are more common than you would expect. Furthermore, avoiding foods does not address your underlying leaky gut issues. If the gut lining is not healed and you develop additional food allergies, the number and variety of foods you can eat safely will be severely limited. Thankfully, with some changes to your diet and lifestyle, you may be able to heal your intestinal lining and reduce symptoms of leaky gut food sensitivities.
Get tested by a doctor to determine if you have leaky gut food sensitivities and what your specific allergens may be. Identifying your food triggers is the best first step and can help you determine the right plan of action, as these are the foods you’ll want to avoid until your gut lining is repaired.
There is no perfect test that will completely identify a food sensitivity, but doctors can take a variety of factors into consideration to determine a diagnosis. Allergy testing usually starts with a physical medical examination and an evaluation of your family’s medical history. From there, your doctor may perform a blood test, which involves taking a blood sample and sending it to a lab to be tested with different types of foods.
Your doctor may also perform a skin test. During this test, the doctor will place a small amount of the suspected food on your forearm or back and prick your skin, allowing a small amount of the food into your skin’s surface. If you are allergic to the food, your skin will develop a bump or otherwise react. However, a reaction to this test alone does not confirm an allergy or sensitivity.
You may also be asked to go on an elimination diet, which involves eliminating suspect foods from your diet for a few weeks and then including them back into your diet. If you feel better during the elimination period or feel worse when the foods are added back into your diet, you may have a food allergy. However, this is not foolproof.
Above all, avoid at-home allergy testing kits. These are generally not accurate nor federally approved and more often give false-positives.
Probiotic supplements and probiotic-rich foods may help leaky gut food sensitivities by repopulating your gut with beneficial bacteria and yeasts that rebalance your gut flora. While more research is necessary, several studies suggest that probiotics may play a role in regulating immune responses within the gut, which may have a direct impact on allergy triggers. Most importantly, studies show that probiotics may help maintain your intestinal lining, thereby reducing intestinal permeability and potentially preventing the leakage of food particles into the bloodstream.
Increase your fiber intake
Fiber is one of the most important dietary components to your overall health and wellbeing. Indigestible plant fiber is known to help the digestive process. Because it is not broken down by stomach acids, it travels all the way to the gut, where bacteria can feed on it. Fiber essentially acts as fuel for your gut bacteria, allowing it to thrive and help maintain diversity in your microbiome.
Avoid inflammatory foods
Too much inflammation is never a good thing, and some foods may contribute to an already overactive immune response resulting in leaky gut food sensitivities. Most of the foods associated with greater inflammation are also foods generally considered unhealthy. This includes processed foods, foods high in refined sugar, trans fats, and excess alcohol.
Take bovine colostrum
Colostrum is a nutrient-rich substance referred to as “pre-milk”. Bovine colostrum may provide a variety of potential health benefits, and studies have found that oral supplementation was found to effectively reduce intestinal permeability in athletes. A pilot study also found that colostrum supplementation improved gut function and reduced gastrointestinal symptoms in children with autism spectrum disorders. This all suggests that colostrum may be beneficial for a leaky gut, which could in turn help to address allergy symptoms.
Maintain healthy mechanisms for dealing with stress
Chronic stress poses some serious issues for nearly all aspects of your health, including your gut and its response to food allergies. Studies show that psychological stress may actually induce intestinal hypersensitivity and permeability. Learning to cope with stress, whether that means breathing exercises, physical activity, meditation, or professional counseling, may play an integral role in managing a leaky gut and food allergies that have gone out of control.
While science has yet to fully determine the cause of food allergies and sensitivities, a leaky gut may be a primary contributor.This article was brought to you by Sovereign Laboratories, a world leader in the development of liposomal delivery to maximize the bioavailability of our dietary supplements.