Learn about these natural remedies for food allergies, these herbal combinations may be the key to solving digestive problems.
Natural Remedies for Food Allergies
A stressed immune system can become hypersensitive to allergens.
I didn’t know what food allergies were really like until I met Rebecca. She came into the clinic one afternoon several years ago, bringing with her a bag of digestive enzyme supplements and a list of foods she could not eat. I looked over the list and could see that it didn’t leave her much to enjoy in her diet. “Little enjoyment from my food is better than what happens when I let down my guard and eat a food I can’t handle,” she said rather grimly. I could see how she could feel that way — years of digestive pain, low energy, and diarrhea would put anyone in a bad mood.
Over the years, I have worked with many patients suffering from food allergies, and each patient seems to have worked out a different, simple diet that creates the least amount of problems for them. Some eat only lightly steamed vegetables and grains; some, mostly fish and potatoes; and others, cooked fruit. Each person tends to have a set of different intolerances, but certain foods seem to be nearly universal allergens: eggs, commercial meats, commercial dairy products, and many processed foods. Peanuts, a common allergen in the news these days, are not really nuts, but legumes. Legumes are also notorious because of all the proteins and potentially toxic compounds, such as protease inhibitors, that they contain — especially if they are not cooked well.
Understanding Food Allergies
Two types of common tests for determining your sensitivity to various foods are available at your doctor’s office. While not foolproof, these tests can offer some valuable evidence of a food allergy. The two tests are the skin prick test and a blood test such as the radioallergosorbent test. The skin prick test is the cheapest and is widely available. In this test, a doctor places drops of the food substance being tested on the skin, then makes a small pin prick at the site, allowing a little of the substance to enter the skin and interact with the immune system. A small bump or “wheal” develops at the site if one is allergic. Blood tests may be more accurate, but they require a blood draw and are often more expensive. By eliminating the foods to which you react from your diet for ten days or two weeks, you can better determine if those foods actually contribute to your symptoms.
With food allergies, a stressed and overstimulated immune system can become hypersensitive to allergens — a condition that’s more difficult to change than pure digestive enzyme insufficiency. This is why I always start by trying to increase the body’s own production of digestive substances and add enzyme supplements if needed. If this support isn’t enough to improve digestive efficiency and reduce symptoms, we can work on immune support next.
Sometimes the immune system mistakes a harmless food component such as casein, a protein from milk, and develops protective chemicals called antibodies (in this case IgA and IgG) to the substance. You might be surprised to learn that the gut contains about 40 to 60 percent of the body’s immune tissue. The next time that food is eaten, a massive chemical reaction can take place in the body, ostensibly to protect against a dangerous invader. In this case, however, the body’s reaction to a harmless substance is way too severe and can even be life-threatening. Lesser reactions can take place, producing symptoms in the digestive tract such as gas, bloating, pain, and cramps. These reactions can be accompanied by a feeling of malaise or “spaciness.”
Rebecca’s Food Allergy Case
Rebecca came in because she wanted to try and reduce some of the symptoms she felt, such as dizziness, fatigue, and digestive pain after eating — even on a strict diet. I checked her pulse, and it was slow and “damp,” and her tongue was very puffy and pale, with a fairly thick white coating. My impressions based on these signs were that she had weak digestive qi (vital energy), with some internal coldness in her digestion. This can translate into low digestive enzyme levels, low bile output from the liver, and perhaps low hydrochloric acid levels in the stomach.
To start Rebecca’s program, I thought first of the classic combination of red ginseng (Panax ginseng) and ginger (Zingiber officinale). These two herbs, when taken together, are very effective for warming up the digestive “fire” and modulating immune function for reducing the symptoms of food allergies. The two herbs can be brewed as a tea, or the liquid tinctures may be blended together (40 percent red ginseng and 60 percent ginger). For convenience, I recommended the ready-made Chinese formula called Liu Jun Zi. This contains other digestive-stimulating herbs — Chinese licorice (Glycyrrhiza uralensis), poria (Poria cocos), atractylodes (Atractylodes macrocephala), citrus peel (Citrus reticulata), Chinese amomum (Amomum villosum), saussurea (Saussurea spp.), and pinellia (Pinellia ternata).
I like this formula because the tablets (100 to a bottle) are not coated with dye or sugar and can be chewed and swallowed. They produce a nice, warm feeling in the stomach and help reduce food-allergy symptoms successfully in many cases when taken 4 at a time before big meals, twice daily. Science has confirmed IgG and IgA reductions in laboratory studies for some of the herbs.
Rebecca’s program consisted of four basic parts that should benefit many people with food allergies.
1. Warming and stimulating herbs to promote digestive enzyme production (ginseng and ginger or Liu Jun Zi).
2. Bitter herbs to stimulate hydrochloric acid production from the stomach (to improve protein digestion). Bitter herbs such as gentian (Gentiana lutea) are known to also modulate immune function and help restore overall vitality. Artichoke leaf (Cynara scolymus), another bitter herb, can increase bile flow for better fat digestion. I always encourage patients to try to activate the production of their own enzymes with herbs rather than depend on enzyme supplements, which can promote atrophy of enzyme-producing mechanisms. Bitter herbs (or bitter tonics, as they are sometimes called) should be used 10 to 15 minutes before meals, preferably in liquid form (2 to 4 droppersful in a little water).
3. Natural enzyme-containing herbs such as hawthorn (Crataegus spp.). In China, hawthorn fruit is boiled down and made into candy wafers called “haw flakes,” which are chewed before meals. These are available in places that sell Chinese foods and herbs.
4. Release of tension over the abdominal area with “self-massage.” I asked Rebecca to massage a little warming oil into her belly each evening for ten minutes or so using clockwise movements, going as deep as was comfortable. Releasing this area regularly can really help reduce symptoms of pain and cramping.
Success Using Natural Herbal Remedies
Additionally, Rebecca was interested in receiving regular acupuncture treatments, which also help strengthen the digestive area. After a month of treatments and herbs, she was able to reduce her enzyme supplements by about half and still avoid any major problems. Two months later she used enzymes only occasionally, and her energy had increased. Her tongue had improved to the point where her coating was nearly normal. When I see positive changes in the tongue, especially for digestive problems, I feel more certain that positive changes are happening. Rebecca continued to improve and discontinued the acupuncture after four months. She had to be careful, but she was able to digest a wider variety of foods with less pain and more normal bowel movements. She reported a 50 percent improvement of symptoms over four months, which she thought was great based on the years of chronic problems. For food allergies, keeping the energy flowering in the abdominal area and helping to activate the body’s own enzyme production with herbs can be key elements in a successful program.
Christopher Hobbs’s case studies are gleaned from his thirty years of studying and practicing herbalism. Hobbs, a fourth-generation botanist and herbalist, is an Herbs for Health editorial adviser and licensed acupuncturist. He is the coauthor of Vitamins for Dummies (IDG, 1999) and many other books.
“Case studies” is not intended to replace the advice of your health-care provider.