Food Intolerances Triggering Anxiety
In Part 1 of this series, we talked about how a real-food, nutrient-dense diet plays a critical role in the health our neurotransmitters and hormones, which are the chemical messengers responsible for keeping us calm, happy and centered. In Part 2, we’ll be diving deeper into how specific foods either soothe or excite our nervous systems by contributing to something called immune system activation. This occurs when the foods we’re eating don’t agree with our individual body chemistry and cause our immune system to attack, leading to all sorts of symptom manifestations, particularly psychiatric ones such as anxiety and depression. However, before we go citing our immune system activity, let’s talk about what that means …
Immunity is the system in your body responsible for determining self versus non-self. It’s what keeps us healthy when bacteria or viruses attack and how we fight off infection. Anything determined as “self” is permitted to enter into the body and anything determined non-self is attacked with immune cells and antibodies. This is when we say things like “I’m fighting off a cold” or “She’s beating the flu.” It’s our trusty immune system doing all this work! When all is well, this system is vital to our health and can even save our lives. However, like an unruly teenager, this system can get out of hand quickly when triggered in the right way. Today, we’ll be discussing those triggers: both what they are and how you can avoid them.
It seems funny that food could trigger our immune system. After all, isn’t all food meant to be eaten? Unfortunately, and much to our dismay, not all food. Some of this has to do with the actual food itself (veggies vs. hot pockets for example), but some of it has to do with what is called bio-individuality. In simple terms, this words just means that each of us has a unique body chemistry which responds to certain foods in different ways. What might cause me to thrive and feel energetic, might be recognized by your body in a totally different way and cause sickness and low energy instead. This largely has to do with genetics, but can also be influenced by environment and lifestyle factors. As we’ll talk about today, people who experience anxiety are much more likely to show antibodies to common allergens than the average person, as well as test positive for impaired gut function. Considering that 80% of our immune system is found in our guts, we start to see the connection between what we eat, our digestion and our immune system. Now things are cookin…
Like we talked about in Part 1, everything we eat is digested and broken down into smaller nutrients for our body to use. The absorption of those nutrients takes place in our gut (small intestine) and each of those food molecules has to pass through our immune system before being “cleared” to enter. Two of the most common trigger foods to humans are the protein Gluten (found in wheat, barley and rye) and dairy products. When these trigger foods hit our immune system, the body sees them as non-self invaders and starts a reaction to take care of the problem. Like I mentioned before, this can happen for various reasons, including genetics. Much like a cut, when the body senses an immune response, certain reactions take place. Heat, inflammation, pain, redness and swelling occur, however, instead of on the outside of the body, this will happen on the inside. We call this internal inflammation and its effects on the body are numerous. For obvious reasons, inflammation, pain and swelling don’t feel good, but internal inflammation in the gut causes a much more dangerous issue: Leaky Gut.
Our gut is the barrier between the outside world (our food) and our bloodstream. It’s also pretty picky and lets only very small nutrients and food molecules pass through it’s junctions in order to keep out non-self invaders. However, the internal inflammation we talked about below acts sort of like sandpaper, irritating and wearing down these junctions creating loose spaces and bigger holes. This allows larger bacteria, viruses and food molecules to enter into our blood where they are most assuredly marked as attackers, creating a war in the body. It is THIS war, this chaos, which creates the changes in our brain chemistry that lead to disorders such as anxiety, panic and obsessive-compulsiveness. In fact, one[Sw1] [Sw2] [Sw3] study showed that 57% of people with psychiatric disorders tested positive for antibodies to the proteins found in gluten! This means that over half of the people tested reacted negatively to eating gluten, triggering immune and inflammatory responses. Once we have this leaky gut syndrome, almost everything we eat can become problematic because it was never supposed to enter into our body in that form and, is therefore, rejected as it were by our immune system.
So, now that I’ve gone and presented such a huge conundrum, let’s chat about the ways you can heal this cycle. Don’t worry, I’m not going to leave you hanging!
While there are various tests floating out there in the health industry, many of them have proven to be unreliable at best and completely false at worst. One of the best ways to determine an intolerance or reaction to a food is to simply do an elimination diet. To do this, you remove that food from your diet for a period of time (usually 30-60 days) and then reintroduce it to check for a return of symptoms. The reason the test calls for such a long period of time is to give the body a chance to resolve its inflammation and calm down to get the most accurate read possible. If upon reintroducing the food, you notice symptoms pop back up, you then know that there is a sensitivity going on, possibly even an allergy. You can then, once again, remove that food to eliminate your symptoms and return to feeling good again.
One of the most common questions I get with clients is, “Will I have to avoid it forever?” While I tell them that I can’t answer that definitively, I can give you two likely scenarios. Often, after some healing has occurred people are able to reintroduce the foods which they react to infrequently and without much problem. On the other hand, sometimes there is a fixed intolerance requiring abstinence for life. In this case, I tell people to get excited, which they often feel confused at. But I like to look at it like this: You get to feel good again, and there’s hardly a price on an anxiety-free life, and you get to dive into the fun, new world of healthful eating and learn new skills such as gluten-free baking or try new treats like coconut ice cream. With tons of evidence coming out to support dietary approaches to chronic illness, more and more bloggers, recipe creators and influencers are speaking out about how they manage their lives with a food intolerance and are creating streams of hope for those who may feel overwhelmed or confused.
Learning to eat in a way that works for you body isn’t a life sentence – it’s a privilege! Many people go their entire lives feeling terrible and never understanding why, only to end up on medication after medication just getting by. I get excited every time I land on a sensitivity with my clients because it means their one step closer to living a healthy, vital and thriving life and finding out their secret formula to wellness!
Stay tuned for our last part in this series where we’ll discuss the effects of sugar and caffeine on anxiety and how they can easily mimic panic attacks or anxious feelings. Wishing you well!
1. Jackson, Jessica R., et al. Neurologic and Psychiatric Manifestations of Celiac Disease and Gluten Sensitivity. PMC. 2 May, 2013. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3641836/