DISCLAIMER: Please note that this post is in no means intended as medical advice. You should talk to your doctor and allergist about what the right path is for you and your allergies. The gut health series is intended to be an exploration of a topic that I have been seeing pop up in many allergy discussions.
Gut health has been popping up all over the place lately, from podcasts to my Facebook feed, allergy news, and it was essentially what the doctor I saw two years ago, who I thought was crazy, was talking about. Since I am now much more open to finding different ways to manage my food allergies, I thought I would dedicate part of this fall to exploring what the heck gut health is.
To start us off I have a two part series with Vivian from AllergyFamilies. Vivian is a doctor with 14 years of experience. She trained in internal medicine and dermatology in London before moving into Family Practice. The first part is getting to know more Vivian, her allergy journey, and the basics of gut health. The second part will be about the relationship between gut health and food allergies.
I hope you learn as much as I did! Now I pass you on to Vivian…
What is your allergy journey?
I had been a doctor for 5 years before my allergy journey REALLY began. And that’s a shame because I could have helped a lot of patients in the first 3 years of my career, but better late than never and I’m glad to be able to raise allergy awareness now and share my knowledge. At medical school I learnt about anaphylaxis and IgE mediated allergies I was not taught about the non-IgE, delayed type reaction which is the one my daughter ended up being diagnosed with.
When Sarah (my daughter) was 4 weeks old she stopped feeding properly. I breast fed her but she kept coming off, fussed and pulled away several times during feeds, I had to resort to a type of feeding method called ‘dream-feeding’ where she would only feed when she was semi-asleep. We saw the doctor numerous times, she was given the diagnosis of ‘reflux’, put on various meds. At the age of 8 weeks she had stopped feeding, become dehydrated, and needed hospital admission for tube-feeding. I was beside myself frantically looking for answers, and this tore me apart because when you are a doctor and you can’t even help your own child the guilt is all consuming. Eventually, I found a great pediatric dietician who had an interest in allergies who diagnosed her with cow’s milk protein allergy. We switched Sarah to neonate, an amino acid based hypoallergenic (i.e. Dairy-free) formula, and within a week she started feeding again.
Later, her skin prick testing showed she was also allergic to egg and peanuts, and fortunately, she outgrew all her allergies by the age of 4 years.
The experience with my son was different – I was on the look out for symptoms. When he started having sores around his bottom at the age of 3 weeks and eczema, I took him to the allergist straight away and at a very early age, he was diagnosed with cow’s milk protein, egg, peanut, walnut, pecan, white fish, kiwi allergies.
The early part of my journey was a frustrating one. Because doctors would tell me there was nothing I could do for their allergies except avoidance and waiting. ‘Just waiting’ is not my style, inside I was screaming!! There must be something I can do, and why are so many kids (and adults allergic now!?) so 8 years ago I started to do my own reading and research. I adopted lifestyle changes which I believe may have helped my kids. You can read more about Vivan’s journey on her blog.
When when we talk about gut health what do we mean?
Gut health means a good balance of the right type of friendly bacteria, which helps to maintain a good gut barrier (i.e. not leaky), adequate digestion and absorption of nutrients, and a healthy immune system at the gut barrier which functions properly to distinguish friend from foe.
What made you interested in gut health?
I had always felt like I wasn’t helping my patients fully as a western medical practitioner. We are very good at treating many conditions, but chronic illnesses isn’t one of them.
Yet there is a chronic disease epidemic and I saw more and more patients who I did not feel that I was helping truly. As Dr Junger describes in his book ‘Clean’, our health is like a tree. Diseases start at the root but we as western medical doctors only see the symptoms on the surface i.e. the leaves and treating this rather than getting down to the root.
I really like this analogy: When you flood the bathroom because you left the faucet on, you don’t mop the floor, you switch off that faucet, right? But unfortunately, we are often handing out treatments that mop the floor only without turning off the faucet. So we are just chasing our tails. Don’t get me wrong, doctors all have one intention, and that is to help their patients. But ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’ – and I had that aha moment a few years back when I realized that a big chunk of ‘root cause’ comes from a dysregulated gut because that is where 70% of our body’s immune system resides.
And so many of the chronic diseases we see today result from a malfunctioning immune system. Take allergy – the immune system loses its ability to distinguish friend from foe, and starts attacking foods that should be recognized as ‘friend’. Asthma, the immune system triggers off contraction of the airway in an out of control manner. Autoimmune diseases, the immune system loses its ability to recognize the body’s own tissue and starts attacking it and destroying tissue e.g. thyroid (in Hashimotos), joints (in Rheumatoid arthritis)… and so on, you get the gist. So the fundamental unifying theme here is an immune system that has lost its way.
Why has it lost its way?
The many friendly bacteria in our gut (known as the microbiome) has an important function in regulating the immune system. These bacteria make signalling molecules, present foreign body to the immune system, digest our food, and help to protect the integrity of our gut lining (among many other functions).
A disrupted microbiome (known as dysbiosis) can lead to a malfunctioning immune system, because the signals start to become wrong, they mistakenly present food as foe. In addition, if the gut is not working well, food is not digested properly, so big pieces of food protein which would normally be broken down starts to be presented to the immune system which becomes confused (because normally the immune system would only see the food in its digested form). Also, with a leaky gut barrier, food proteins and toxins that normally stay in our gut can leak into our bloodstream and again triggers immune reactions. When the gut is out of whack, our immune system starts to become confused.
Furthermore, lots of research has now highlighted the importance of our gut microbiome and its role in health, from obesity to chronic diseases like Parkinson’s disease and cancer.
What are symptoms or signs that you may have an unhealthy/unhappy gut?
The main GI symptoms are:
- tummy aches/pains
- excessive gas
- diarrhea, constipation
- nutrient deficiency e.g. B12, folate, iron
- food sensitivities
There are many symptoms which are red flags for something more serious – so it is important you consult your physician.
The more common wider symptoms you may experience are
- fatigue/low energy
- brain fog
- skin problems, e.g. eczema, rashes
- and given 80-90% of the body’s serotonin is made in the gut, some people experience low mood/depression
There are many symptoms which are red flags for something more serious – so it is important you consult your physician and not self-diagnose as IBS.
Stay tuned for Part Two where we explore the relationship between gut health and food allergies.