Is food making you sick?

Serious digestive problems often go undiagnosed

Find out what they are and how you can identify them


By Dominique Hlavac
Talon staff writer

Allergies. Intolerances. Sensitivities. Many teens have these food related conditions and may not know it. This is very dangerous because when they are ignored, they can create chronic pain and cause difficulty maintaining a healthy weight.

Telling the difference between allergies, intolerances and sensitivities can seem confusing, but it’s actually very simple. Allergies are a response from the immune system to what it has deemed foreign particles, while intolerances are the lack of an enzyme, a protein molecule that helps break down foods in digestion, in the intestinal tract. If someone is lacking in an enzyme that helps digest lactose, they are lactose intolerant. Sensitivities are triggered by repeated aggravation of the intestines over time.

“I had a patient,” said Clinical Nutritionist Craig Hartman, “[tell] me that [her allergy] had to be dairy even when she’d eat a pizza and pick off all the cheese and just eat the crust and the sauce she would still get a gut ache. So I had to tell her it wasn’t because of the cheese, it was because of crust. It was the gluten in the crust. It’s sometimes just confusing to people.”

These food conditions have the potential to confuse not only teens but adults as well. Even doctors disagree in their approaches to these problems.

“People clearly know they have symptoms,” said Greg Plotnikoff, medical director at the Institute for Health and Healing at Abbott Northwestern Hospital. “Few physicians consider food sensitivities or intolerances to be valid diagnoses.”

Gluten is often the culprit

An example of this is gluten, a protein found in grains. Over time, gluten has been genetically modified so that it is more harmful to our bodies than the ancient grain were.

“In the late ‘70s to early ‘80s, wheat was one of the first grains to be genetically modified,” said Hartman. “That changed the gluten protein in it, and that change has made it much more difficult for people’s digestive systems.”

Our bodies reject gluten because its genetic modification has made it chemically unfamiliar to our bodies. It is modified to keep away pests from grains as they grow in the field and increase the shelf life of the products. But in some people, this genetically-modified gluten causes inflammation in the intestines.

Some may not realize that they are sensitive to gluten; it may be mistaken it for heartburn, minor stomach discomfort or an intolerance of something else. But when they eat a gluten-filled product, such as a slice of bread, they’ll feel the effects.

“People don’t realize that could be the initiating event.” said Hartman. “They don’t realize that the thing that initiates this whole domino effect throughout their health is eating gluten.”

Many sensitivities, allergies or intolerances can be inherited genetically or be brought on by repeated aggravation of the gastro-intestinal tract.
This can lead to development of allergies – and not just food alleries; pollen allergies are also triggered by repeated aggravation in the gut.

“It’s the gluten that you consumed that inflamed your digestive tract,” Hartman said, “that over-activates your immune system and makes your immune system highly sensitive to that pollen in the air.”

A disease commonly associated with gluten sensitivity is Celiac disease. A person with Celiac is unable to eat gluten because of the severe damage it causes to their intestines.According to the National Institutes of Health, Celiac disease affects about 3 million Americans.

About one in 133 people have Celiac disease, only one in 4,700 are clinically diagnosed.

It is a common misconception to think that only the gluten sensitive can suffer because of the gluten protein itself. Even though someone may not have the clinical diagnosis of a gluten sensitivity, it doesn’t mean it cannot be ruled out.

There are simple at-home tests that can be done to test for a food sensitivity. The first is an elimination diet.

If you think you have sensitivity to gluten, for example, you would completely eliminate it from your diet for a period of one to two weeks. Then eat something filled with gluten to see how you feel afterwards. If you get a gut ache, a headache, weakness or have any other irregular symptoms after eating gluten it is safe to say that you have gluten sensitivity.

Another method for diagnosing sensitivities is to keep a record of what you eat every day and the symptoms you have, so that you can associate certain symptoms with the foods you eat.

Processed foods

Another danger to the digestive system is a well-engrained staple in the typical American diet: processed food.

American cheese for example: It can sit in the grocery store’s cooler for a long time without molding, then in your fridge, but what causes it to have that longevity? Preservatives. There are many methods for preserving food but the route that major food companies take is  to add various chemicals to the food  just for the sake of making a profit. There are dyes that give the food a certain color, additives that help the food retain a certain shape, and pesticides added to produce to keep insects away from the crop.

These chemicals are not natural to the body and therefore create a negative reaction in the gut. Stress and anxiety are other factors that play a significant role in gut health.

“The teachers and the administrators, we’re really dealing a lot with anxiety in the teenagers,” said Minnehaha nurse Joan McCord. “I think that’s really increased and I also think it’s causing stomach problems and body problems.”

The impact of stress

Mental stress often has physical consequences.

“This is really, I think, an undiagnosed problem in teens in particular,” McCord said. “That stress affects the adrenal system directly. It releases the hormone cortisol.”

Cortisol is secreted by the adrenal glands; it is often referred to as ‘the stress hormone’. When stress triggers the ‘fight or flight’ response in the nervous system, the level of cortisol secreted is elevated.

“The cortisol being elevated for long periods of time changes our internal chemistry,” said McCord. “It makes our immunity decrease, our blood sugars increase, cholesterol levels go up, accelerates fat storage so you know you’re exercising, you’re maybe even eating right and you can’t figure out ‘why am I not losing weight?’ It may actually just be all that stress and the Cortisol which is hindering you from being healthy.”

This also relates to the connection between the brain and gut. So much that many scientists refer to the two systems as ‘the brain-gut axis’.

“The brain and the gut have a big connection.” McCord said. “Any of those chemicals that are produced in the brain are also produced in the gut, and if you’re having a problem or if they’re blocked you’re going to have a lot of symptoms.”

For example, someone suffering from depression would have low levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin. A neurotransmitter is a chemical that relays signals from one area of the brain to another. Serotonin serves many purposes in the body, including regulation of mood, appetite, sleep, memory, and other cognitive functions and is responsible for giving a feeling of joy and happiness.

Most of the serotonin in the body is found in the gut. There are many ways to raise serotonin in the gut; eating foods rich in amino acids, steering clear of fad diets, getting enough exercise and getting a good amount of sunlight.

Since what you eat is directly responsible for the way you feel, if you suspect that you may have a food condition, try an elimination diet or see a nutritionist that can work with you and help develop a diet that will be the most beneficial.

If you have severe symptoms, contact a doctor right away because it could be the sign of a more serious condition.

Remember, if you have a food condition you’re not alone. There are many people who are searching for answers. Foods that accommodate certain conditions are becoming widely available through co-op food stores, neighborhood grocery stores and even major food retailers.

“It’s becoming more and more known, you go to the grocery store and you see more gluten free products.” Hartman said. “It’s becoming popular, and it’s only going to increase in the future.”


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