Food reactions are becoming increasingly common—you can even order a food sensitivity test from the comfort of your own home. For some people, food reactions may result in a medical emergency, such as anaphylaxis due to peanuts or shellfish. For most people, however, food reactions are not life-threatening but still affect quality of life. And multiple reactions add a layer of difficulty to simple pleasures, such as ordering out or enjoying a social gathering. Currently, food intolerance treatments center around avoiding the food or using an Epi-pen for severe allergies.
Let’s Get Technical
Differences in the severity of food reactions usually depend on your immune system’s response to a food.
When someone has a true allergy, such as a peanut allergy, their body has what’s called a Th2 response which produces IgE antibodies and histamine. This can lead to reactions like hives, nausea, fainting, or anaphylaxis.
Another type of food reaction is called a hypersensitivity. Hypersensitivities are mediated by an immune response called Th1. A Th1 response produces IgG antibodies and lots of inflammation, ultimately leading to symptoms. The symptoms might happen immediately but can also be delayed and show up days or weeks later….super confusing. Any type of food can trigger a hypersensitivity, including gluten.
Even more confusing is that both of these types of reactions can manifest in a very similar way—only the immune pathways differ.
So what about food intolerance treatments? Is it possible to reverse reactions to food?
A Google search reveals several treatments or programs claiming that healing from food reactions is possible. But the real question is, are these legit or just BS?
Let’s dive in and break it down.
Food Intolerance Treatments #1: NAET
NAET stands for Nambudripad Allergy Elimination Techniques, a non-invasive treatment created in 1983 by Dr. Devi S. Nambudripad. The NAET website describes it as:
“…a non-invasive, drug-free, natural solution to alleviate allergies of all types and intensities using a blend of selective energy balancing, testing and treatment procedures from acupuncture/acupressure, allopathy, chiropractic, nutritional, and kinesiological disciplines of medicine.”
According to the website, this treatment can reduce adverse reactions to everything from peanuts to penicillin.
A 2014 case study demonstrated that NAET successfully reduced allergic response in a patient with severe peanut allergy. In this report, a 19-year-old woman with anaphylaxis triggered by peanuts was treated for 18 months with NAET. By the end of the treatment, she did not react after ingesting 1 gram of peanut powder. In addition, her IgE antibodies to peanuts decreased noticeably, from 36.2 kU/L to 12.60 kU/L at the 18-month mark (1).
The patient reported that after the treatment, she could travel internationally without symptoms of an allergic reaction, which she previously could not do.
However, this is just one case, and the study was published by Dr. Devi Nambudripad’s son, Dr. Roy Nambudripad.
What does other evidence tell us?
Energy blockages really lead to food allergies?
And NAET should actually be included on the list of food intolerance treatments?
Maybe so. A well-written journalistic piece on the topic was first published in 2013 by David Villano titled “Why Would a Medical Doctor Embrace An Unproven Treatment?” The doctor in question turns out to be his wife, and she embraces NAET because, in her own words, “It works. What can I say?”
Food Intolerance Treatments #2: DNRS
Next up on our list of food intolerance treatments is DNRS, or Dynamic Neural Retraining System. DNRS is a self-paced strategy to rewire the brain’s limbic system.
The limbic system controls emotions, behavior, and stress response. DNRS claims to help you shift out of flight or fight mode so you can heal properly (2).
The fight or flight response is controlled by the sympathetic nervous system. This is the part of your nervous system activated during emergencies or stressful situations.
In general, our fast-paced society demands lots of sympathetic action, from the moment we rush out the door for work until we fall asleep while scrolling social media. Breaking out of sympathetic mode means activating the parasympathetic nervous system. Often called “rest and digest” mode, this part of the nervous system is also crucial in regulating stress hormones and facilitating healing.
The DNRS website has 10 pages of success stories, many of which speak specifically to the resolution of food reactions. However, there have not been any peer-reviewed studies on the efficacy of DNRS. One pilot study conducted by McMaster University found that after a DNRS seminar, participants reported fewer symptoms of chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, anxiety, depression, and multiple chemical sensitivity.
The validity of DNRS seems similar to that of NAET—it’s not thoroughly peer-reviewed, but it might work.
Food Intolerance Treatments #3: Immunotherapy
Immunotherapy is a medically accepted desensitization method that relies on continuous exposure to a very low dose of the allergenic substance.
This is a slow-going process, and it may take years to achieve desensitization. The most common type of immunotherapy is allergy injections that treat seasonal allergies. Each time an injection is administered, the body has a mild immune response. Over time this helps the immune system become tolerant of the allergen (3).
When it comes to food allergies, however, immunotherapy has not been the treatment of choice because it is still being researched to determine safety. As you can imagine, giving someone food that may trigger an anaphylactic reaction is risky!
However, in 2020 the FDA approved the first oral immunotherapy to treat peanut allergy, Palforzia (Peanut Allergen Powder). Palforzia is intended for children aged 4-17 and is expensive—a year’s supply is currently $10,680 (4). While it does not have a 100% success rate, it is very effective at reversing peanut allergies.
Another treatment for peanut allergy, administered as a skin patch, is under FDA review.
Given that food allergy is an increasing problem, food intolerance treatments for this and other allergens are likely on the horizon.
Food Intolerance Treatments #4: Increasing Immune Tolerance
As we know, food intolerances are part of an immune response. Specific immune cells called T- helper regulatory cells (aka Treg) play a critical role in preventing food allergies. Besides secretion of anti-inflammatory molecules, their primary job is maintaining a balance between the opposing arms of the immune system—T helper 1 (Th1) and T helper 2 (Th2) mentioned earlier in the blog.
When your body is fighting a viral or bacterial infection, the Th1 immune response is activated. But remember that Th1 is also the dominant reaction in hypersensitivity (and, interestingly, in autoimmunity).
When you’re fighting a parasite, poison, environmental, or true food allergen, the Th2 response is activated.
People who are “allergic to everything” likely have an overactive Th2 response. Th1 and Th2 behave as if they were on opposing positions on a scale—when one is increased the other decreases.
T regulatory cells keep the balance, so neither side of the scale topples over.
A healthy Treg response is necessary for preventing allergies. Basically, it helps support the immune system in fighting off pathogens, but it keeps it from going off the rails and creating excessive inflammation.
Several nutrients are vital in increasing the Treg response. It is thought that many of these may play a role in preventing and treating food reactions.
Vitamin D is vital to immune health. Insufficiency of vitamin D in early life has been observed to increase the risk of food allergy. Low vitamin D levels are associated with a shift towards Th2 dominance, and sufficient vitamin D increases Treg (5).
A large population-based study found a significant inverse association between vitamin D levels and IgE, where IgE significantly increased with increasing vitamin D deficiency (6).
However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that taking a hefty dose of vitamin D will help heal food reactions. A few studies have shown that too much vitamin D could actually worsen food allergies (5)! There seems to be a sweet spot for this essential vitamin—too little is bad, but too much might also be harmful.
That said, vitamin D insufficiency is widespread, and it’s an easy test to do at the doctor’s office.
Vitamin A is a significant player in intestinal barrier function and the development of oral tolerance to food. The production of Treg cells depends on vitamin A and, more importantly, the production of induced Treg cells (iTreg).
These are special Treg cells produced throughout the body, including the gut, in the presence of food antigens. The development of oral tolerance depends on these special Treg cells (7).
Similar to vitamin D, too much supplemental vitamin A can be harmful. The best food sources of A are beef liver, cod liver oil, fatty fish, eggs, and dairy. Carrots and leafy greens also contain vitamin A, but in the form of pro-vitamin A, which must be converted to preformed A, the active form your body needs. Some people are efficient converters of pro- to preformed A, but others are not.
Vitamin B9, also known as folate, has been shown in vitro and in vivo to be necessary for Treg cell survival and proliferation (8). Folate is found in many foods and is also produced by good gut bacteria, especially Bifidobacterium (8). You can get folate through leafy greens, pumpkin seeds, whole grains, beans, and beef liver.
Bifidobacterium is a genus of bacteria that usually inhabit the human gut and can be taken as a probiotic supplement. This bacteria has many health benefits, including supporting Treg cells.
It has been observed that children with food allergies have less Bifidobacterium within their gut microbiota than healthy children (9). In one placebo-controlled study, supplementation with Bifidobacterium lactis for three months significantly reduced symptoms of food allergy symptoms (rash, eczema, abdominal pain, and vomiting) and IgE (p<0.05, both) in children with food allergies. Within the same study, it was determined that the probiotic supplementation significantly increased Treg cells (p<0.05) (10) .
So what should we take from all of this? Overarchingly, it seems that the nervous and immune systems are out of balance and possibly hyperactivated in many cases of food intolerance. So a treatment that addresses both systems would be the most effective.
Obviously, for a true food allergy that leads to anaphylaxis, we don’t recommend that you DIY any of these treatments. But if you have a non-life-threatening reaction to many different foods, it might be worth working with a practitioner who can help you reset both of those systems.
Which leads us to our final food intolerance treatment: healing the gut.
Food Intolerance Treatments #5: Elimination, Healing, and Reintroduction
Elimination diets are popping up all over the place as a tool to figure out what foods might be causing you problems.
On the one hand, I’m all for it. Elimination diets get you to eat new foods, lay off foods that have become routine or possibly become addicting, and give your immune and nervous systems a chance to interact with unique nutrients and compounds.
But (you knew there was a “but” coming, right?) the issue with most elimination diets is that they lack the element of gastrointestinal tract healing, aka gut healing. And this critical component can make or break the most crucial part of an elimination diet—the reintroduction.
Staying away from possibly reactive foods for a set time with a calculated reintroduction allows us to track symptoms and nail down what foods are problematic. But between the elimination and reintroduction, there has to be a focus on caring for the organs and systems that process (and possibly react to) what we eat.
Without proper gut healing, usually through supplements or lifestyle, but, as we wrote about previously, through energy work or nervous system retraining, we simply reintroduce foods back into a system that still doesn’t know what to do with them, i.e., a system that continues to react.
A program like The Good Poopers Club is a proper elimination-healing-reintroduction. For many people, it’s an excellent food intolerance treatment because we eliminate the most inflammatory foods, implement ways to heal the GI, and then bring foods back into a renewed digestive system. Plus, you get to eat delicious food and go through the whole process with a group of your peers! Find out all about The Good Poopers Club here.