Vegan Food Allergies: How to Deal, Ways to Heal
In 2002, the allergist’s nurse sighed, “It looks like you’ll be keeping that girlish figure. You’re allergic to everything we tested, except mold and pork!” I had to laugh. That explained why I’d spent two days in the bathroom after enjoying seitan tacos at a veggie restaurant. No wonder I writhed in pain when I drank chocolate soymilk or ate Tofu Pad Thai. Asthma, sinus infections, rashes, brain fog: tree nuts, peanuts, eggs, and dairy! Of the foods I supposedly could eat, I had never liked the idea of eating pig, and who wants to chow down on mold? The results showed why I always grew ill on the vegetarian diet I so desperately wanted to follow, but they failed to ease my conscience. Instead, eating became something I dreaded. Meals required major distractions in order to consume the meat on my plate. By 2003, I had lost all interest in cooking or eating. I still cooked and ate, but joy and celebration had become frustration and shame.
During another bleak dinner, it suddenly dawned on me: those allergy tests leveled the playing field! Technically, everything messes me up, so I might as well enjoy what I eat. That night, I found VegFamily.com, read stories of people going vegan and decided to take my absurd idea to the extreme. Allergic to all vegetarian sources of protein I knew, I would now go vegan. I took digestive enzymes and hoped for the best. Lo and behold, I didn’t die! Even more amazing, I found alternate sources of protein and loved my meals again. Several months into the experiment, I wrote “The Gluten-Free Vegan Diet: Easier than it Sounds” which VegFamily published and later archived. Due to the volume of emails I received about the first article, I wrote “The Gluten-Free Vegan Diet: Updated Information, Tips and Products”
I’ve heard from countless readers and clients that they, too, suffer multiple food allergies and would appreciate any tips on dealing with them. Ironically, I no longer require an allergen-free diet; I eat whatever I want. This article goes beyond ingredient substitutions, offering ways to handle and potentially heal food allergies, intolerances and sensitivities. But first, some definitions:
A true food allergy involves a specific reaction in the immune system (that part of the body responsible for attacking invaders). An allergy occurs when the body mistakenly identifies a harmless substance (antigen) as a threat. The body then creates an antibody, damages cells, and causes a release of histamine. This process, rather than the antigen itself, causes harm. Symptoms of food allergy can include asthma, nasal congestion, digestive woes or, most seriously, anaphylactic shock. If you suffer a severe food allergy, lifelong avoidance might remain necessary.
More people suffer from food intolerances than true allergies. Intolerances can result in a wider variety of symptoms, including respiratory distress, depression, migraines, arthritis, Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), among others. Unlike food allergies, which usually result in immediate symptoms, intolerances can reveal themselves “subtly” even several weeks after ingesting a particular food. As with food allergies, intensities can range from temporary, mild discomfort from too much of a certain food, to celiac disease?a severely damaging intestinal intolerance to any and all glutens (the proteins found in wheat and other grains like barley, spelt and rye).
Food sensitivities can arise from chemical compounds like MSG, caffeine, sugar, or food additives. These substances act like drugs, with some people having lower thresholds than others. The line between food sensitivities and intolerances often blurs, though, since many food intolerances arise from reactions to chemicals like sulfites, nitrates, salicylates, or amines. In Eat Right 4 Your Type, Dr. Peter D’Adamo discusses food sensitivities in relation to blood types. He theorizes that certain components of food, called lectins, react negatively with particular blood types. According to his research, lectins introduced into an incompatible blood type can result in symptoms like abnormal cell growth (cancer), insulin issues, digestive irritation, heart disease, compromised immune system and rheumatoid arthritis. Dr. D’Adamo does not consider his observations “the only factor” in maintaining health but believes blood type can play a key role in determining how food affects us. On a side note, Dr. D’Adamo recommends a strict vegetarian diet for Blood Type A, which comprises about 40% of the world’s population, compared to the estimated .2-4% of the world currently classified as “vegan.”
Many people use the terms “allergy,” “intolerance,” and “sensitivity” interchangeably, and indeed, treatments and testing often overlap. The most common method of identifying food issues involves an Elimination Diet in which the patient removes all common or suspected allergens from the diet for a set period of time. If symptoms improve, the patient then reintroduces foods and records effects. This technique works fine if one or two main, common food allergens cause the symptoms; however, in the case of multiple triggers or intolerances (which can take weeks to manifest) the Elimination Diet can prove cumbersome and less effective. But there is still hope.
The following suggestions helped me overcome my own allergies, and I’ve seen them help many clients and friends as well:
“Go Raw” or take digestive enzymes. Each raw food carries its own enzymes necessary for digestion. When heat destroys these enzymes through cooking, our pancreas works overtime, creating “digestive enzymes” to break down food. (Humans have the largest pancreas relative to body weight in the entire animal kingdom.) If the pancreas becomes fatigued, inadequately digested food particles arrive in the intestines. From there, undigested protein molecules sometimes enter the blood stream and cause an immune response. Low stomach acid can also result in incomplete digestion, and some people find raw blended greens a natural means of improving hydrochloric acid levels. (For more information on green smoothies, read Green for Life by Victoria Boutenko.) Some foods have enzyme inhibitors and need to be soaked in order to activate their enzymes. A few actually digest easier when cooked. If you don’t like raw foods or have minimal access to them, digestive enzyme supplements taken right before meals can also reduce your pancreatic load until you get back on track.
Control Candida. Commonly known as “yeast,” Candida albicans exists in the digestive tracts of all humans. Antibiotics, birth control pills, stress, and sugar can result in Candida Overgrowth, causing Leaky Gut Syndrome, food intolerances/allergies, thrush, “yeast infections” and a host of other symptoms. Though difficult to eradicate, Candida does hate oil of oregano, pau d’arco, sugar restriction, and probiotics like L-acidophilus and B-bifidus. For more information, you can read The Yeast Connection: A Medical Breakthrough by Dr. William G. Crook. From a Medical Intuitive perspective, I’ve also noticed Candida resonates with “victim.” As people empower themselves and curb feelings of victimization, Candida symptoms often dramatically improve.
Cleanse your Body. Even though vegan diets tend to be “cleaner” than the Standard American Diet, at times we can pass a threshold of toxic or allergenic overload. Maybe it’s hay fever season, we lived entirely on Tofutti last summer, have black mold in our home, or accidentally ate larvae on organic produce. Ewwww!!! Hey, sometimes it happens! A friend of mine always quotes Harry Potter’s Hagrid: “Better out than in!” Whether through a full parasite cleanse, a one-day-a-week fast, or gentle herbal support, food sensitivities implore us to lighten our load. Macrobiotic principles suggest people chew food well and detox with the seasons: Liver/Gall Bladder (Spring); Heart/Small intestines (Summer); Spleen-Pancreas/Stomach (Late Summer); Lungs/Large Intestine (Fall); Kidneys/Bladder (Winter). For more information on cleansing with the seasons, I recommendThe Self-Healing Cookbook, by Kristina Turner.
Cleanse your Mind. Stress has been shown to lower the threshold for allergens, so take a few deep breaths and relax. Spend some quiet, reflective time each day. Ask yourself what stands in the way of your being able to eat the foods you like. What expectations, fears or judgments are limiting your naturally free and compassionate mind and heart? On the physical level, allergies and intolerances result from mistaken judgments—the body labels a neutral substance “bad” and launches an attack. The process, not the antigen, causes the problem. We accept the cliché, “You are what you eat” but rarely recognize that the inverse is true as well. We eat as we are. If we want to re-pattern our bodies to embrace the nourishment we offer them, then it helps to stop reacting in other areas of life. In my work, I’ve also found that people sometimes react to foods simply due to their association with an unpleasant event that no longer consciously registers. In such cases, food allergies offer an opportunity to heal the soul as well as the body.
Eat with Gratitude and Love. A little Mindfulness goes a long way in this fast-paced world of ours. Because gratitude and love are incompatible with fear, cultivating these states encourages our bodies to feel “friendlier” and less likely to overreact. Pausing before we eat also signals the body to transition to a more relaxed state, which optimizes digestion. In case words fail you, June Cotner’s Graces: Prayers and Poems for Everyday Meals and Special Occasions offers multi-cultural prayers, poems, songs, and invocations ranging from a Sanskrit sun salutation to Native American blessings, to inspirational words by Helen Keller and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Whether a formal reading or a quick lift of the heart, expressing gratitude and love for our food reminds us of the reasons many of choose a vegan lifestyle.