Reader Q&A #5: Becoming “Too Sensitive,” Food Sensitivities, Adding Foods Back In, Is Paleo Worth It?

Reader Q&A 5

Confession: I haven’t upgraded my iPhone 4 because I love¬†not worrying¬†about messing it up. Since it’s so old, it doesn’t matter to me if it gets a dent, or if I drop it in water. Once I get a brand new shiny phone, I’ll have to¬†worry¬†about that first fingerprint smudge, that first scratch, that first whatever. If anything bad happens to it… it will just be¬†so obvious.¬†I revel in the safety of my iPhone’s yucky state, even if it means having a slower and uglier one.

Yes, this is a metaphor.

With that in mind, on to today’s questions from a reader, regarding the cost/benefit of going Paleo. (i.e.: “Upgrading” your phone, as it were.)

“Have you ever gotten sick from going off Paleo? I‚Äôve been following Paleo for 2.5 months and am really enjoying the benefits of a 20+ pound weight lost and reduced chronic pain (which is why I started). I recently went over to a friend‚Äôs house and out of politeness indulged in some harmless looking chicken fritters. Everything tasted great, but I noticed they were choc‚Äô full of gluten, cheese, bell peppers, black beans and corn. After discovering I am sensitive to nightshades, I realized I could be playing with fire but was not expecting what happened next…¬†

At 3am, I woke up with what can only be described as full-blown food poisoning. I was sick for almost a full day. I even ended up having to call in sick to work. I realized that these changes I had made to my diet to make me feel stronger were now making me feel like weenie who can‚Äôt eat things other people can. What a happened? Chicken fritters seemed to have declared themselves as my sworn enemy. I‚Äôm concerned that I‚Äôve impaired my body‚Äôs ability to process a variety of foods. It seems our bodies can adapt one way or the other given enough time, but is this food sensitivity here to stay? Is there a more effective way of re-introducing foods back in that doesn‚Äôt include night sweats?”

I love this question! It speaks to a very common “problem” in adopting a healthy, holistic food lifestyle. You find that when you revert to your old ways on a splurge… you just feel like crap. Whereas in the past you could devour pasta and cake like there was no tomorrow, prancing around the world afterwards on a sugar high, now a bite of a muffin may instigate nausea and lethargy.¬†Is this newfound¬†sensitivity¬†worth it? Was it better in the old days, when you could eat whatever you (seemingly) wanted?

Before going¬†Paleo,¬†I experienced the negative effects of what I ate all the time.¬†I just didn’t realize it.¬†While I wasn’t throwing up after meals, the ramifications materialized in other areas as chronic, low grade inflammation. Acne and headaches. Shifting energy levels and mood swings. Lower back pain. As I say in¬†my book,¬†I just assumed these were a part of life. Many people do.

But if certain foods are bad for us, how can we eat them 24/7, and still have normal bowel movements and avoid nausea? While we do not genetically adapt on a foundational level to processing certain foods and avoiding inflammatory responses throughout the body, the amount of various¬†digestive enzymes¬†produced by the body¬†for breaking down the basic components of fats, proteins, and sugars can change based on constistent dietary intake, effectively allowing you to “deal” with the stuff on a purely mechanical level. Furthermore, the¬†gut¬†microbiome¬†also rapidly adapts to diet.¬†One study¬†found the gut microbome changes radically within¬†one day¬†of¬†adopting a diet entirely of meat. Now I’m not recommending an all meat diet, I’m just pointing out¬†how easily the gut microbiome, which influences digestion and how your body processes food, can change. Our body can therefore become “used to” eating toxic foods without sending you to the bathroom at 3am, but the negative effects will likely appear in other aspects of your life. (Think skin problems, acne, brain fog, headaches, energy swings, etc.)

On the contrary, if you clean up your diet via Paleo, and reach an unburdened anti-inflammatory state of health, bad foods very quickly register as bad. Your body will therefore do its best to purge problematic foods from its system before they can wreak chronic inflammation and cause further harm.

I like the¬†dirty versus new car¬†example. When you have a dirty car, you don’t realize when you add another smudge of dirt to it – the whole thing just looks dirty. But when you have a super clean car, adding a smudge of dirt can be¬†glaring.

And yes, I’ve been there. My body has become¬†so¬†sensitive to toxic foods, that an outing to Korean BBQ and accidental exposure to who knows what (gluten? sesame?),¬†led to a (needless) colonoscopy.

The reader’s fear is the body is losing its ability to adapt to certain foods. I don’t believe this is this case. Foods which are always bad (gluten, sugar, etc.) and/or personal sensitivities (see below) are¬†always¬†going to create problems. If you’re eating them constantly, you’ll likely experience low grade inflammatory conditions, whereas if you’ve cleaned up your diet and then have an exposure, you may experience¬†acute, gastrointestinal distress.

Adopting a strict, Paleo diet for 30 days or so, provides a clean, sensitive slate. This allows you to actually identify which foods your body does not like.¬†These sensitivities are likely something¬†you would have never¬†realized,¬†had you not gone Paleo. While you may see this as “ugh I can’t eat these foods now,”¬†I see it as kinda cool! You have astute powers of perception!¬†Are¬†are overly sensitive? Perhaps. But in my opinion, being able to see and know more about what’s good and bad for me, is kind of awesome. In other words:

Paleo allows you to identify the foods which are making you weak, so you can become a stronger person.

Sugar, gluten, and processed food toxins are¬†always¬†bad. They’re¬†never¬†going to help you. Never. Sugar raises insulin, encourages fat storage, and increases inflammation. Gluten wreaks havoc on your digestive tract, and also encourages inflammation. Processed food additives and toxins burden the body and encourage inflammation. However, beyond these foods, are other categories which may or may not cause you trouble.

Below are some of the potentially problematic foods.

  • Dairy:¬†Many people react negatively to dairy. Those who are lactose-intolerant lack the enzyme needed to break down the¬†lactose (sugar)¬†in milk, which can lead to digestive issues such as gas and bloating. Others are allergic to the¬†casein (protein)¬†in milk, which can be a potent histamine releaser. Still others are allergic to¬†whey¬†(the liquid part of milk). Whether or not you tolerate dairy depends on your own constitution. If you’re merely lactose-intolerant, you may be able to supplement with lactase (the enzyme needed to digest lactose), and solve any digestive problems. Casein allergies, however, are a different animal, since they involve your body’s autoimmune response.
  • Nightshades:¬†These include peppers, tomatoes, eggplant, and potatoes. Nightshades¬†are a group of plants containing naturally occurring ‚Äúsoapy‚ÄĚ alkaloids called¬†saponins,¬†which serve as protective¬†mechanisms against fungi. (They get their name from the ‚Äúsoapwort‚ÄĚ plant used to make soap.) Saponins¬†may¬†irritate the respiratory and digestive tract, inhibit digestive enzymes and nutrient uptake, encourage leaky gut, and yield an immune response and inflammation. Some people are more sensitive to these compounds than others. If you are indeed sensitive to nightshades, I’m not aware of any way to encourage tolerance.
  • Alcohol:¬†Alcohol is a cost/benefit one. The typical person is capable of processing moderate alcohol intake, and the health benefits tend to outweigh the negative side effects in most studies. However, if your liver is particularly burdened with toxins, or you have a genetic disposition which inhibits toxin processing (i.e.: MTHFR mutation), you may want to forgo alcohol. Some people also react negatively to the sulfites and/or histamines in wine. If histamine is your only problem, consider supplementing with¬†DAO¬†and/or¬†Quercetin. (See the next point.)
  • Histamine Releasers:¬†You may be personally sensitive to foods high in histamine. This includes¬†avocados, alcohol, aged cheeses, dried fruits, mushrooms, smoked fish, sour cream, spinach, tomato, vinegar, etc. Histamine intolerance can occur either because the body does not make enough DAO, an enzyme which breaks down histamine in food, or because the body’s histamine response is askew, and releases too much histamine in response to certain foods. You can supplement with¬†DAO enzymes¬†for food, or take antihistamines to deal with this. But rather than taking drugs like Zyrtec and Benadryl, which can dull your brain, mess with your sleep and energy levels, and further whack out your histamine response receptors, I recommended identifying and avoiding problematic histamine foods, as well as supplementing with natural antihistamine compounds like¬†Quercetin¬†to deal with allergies. Histamine intolerances may be one of the foods where small exposure here and there may “convince” your immune system that the food is not a threat. (Reactions to histamine are different from IgE or antibody related food allergies, which are more severe.)

Sidenote: Many food allergies can occur from leaky gut and gut bacteria imbalances, as proteins and toxins may leak into the blood stream, instigating allergic reactions. Heal your gut, and you may be able to tolerate more foods.

So how to figure out what foods you can and cannot handle? I suggest going strict clean Paleo for a month (a few weeks at minimum), and then introducing the potentially problematic food discussed above one at a time, to see if you react negatively. You should know if you do: think rashes, hives, headaches, nausea, tiredness, brain fog, or indigestion. If you react negatively, it is then your personal choice about whether the negative effects are worth it.

So this was a long-winded way of saying… you have to decide what matters to you. When all’s said and done, it’s like an old versus new iPhone. You can choose whether you want a brand new iPhone, and the worries that come with damaging it, or whether you want to keep your old dingy iPhone for the security. You can choose if the benefits of maintaining a clean diet are worth the hassle of no longer tolerating certain foods on an immediate basis. For me, the glowing skin, radiant energy levels, and soaring moods, make up for any loss in the yummy food department. (Plus, the longer you do the lifestyle, the easier it becomes. Cravings lose their power over you!)

But I really do mean it when I say find what works for you. Sometimes the occasional slip-up, negative effects aside, may be worth it. Or maybe the fear of gastrointestinal distress from breaking your diet, makes the Paleo diet not worth it for you. To each his own! If you do choose to keep problematic foods in your diet on a regular basis, consider implementing some intermittent fasting for its cleansing, anti-inflammatory effects. IF + some bad foods here and there, may be the closest you can get to eating your proverbially literal cake and having it too.

As for me, I choose to abide by my Paleo lifestyle as strictly as possible. On the rare occasion I do slip and fall, I use the inevitable nausea and discomfort as a reminder for¬†why¬†I’m doing what I’m doing. I see my sensitivity as profound perception.

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