an apple a day (or not)

Last night I lie, writhing, on my (filthy) group house kitchen floor, alternating between moans of agony and laughs at the absurdity of the “apple baby” growing in knife-like twinges in my abdomen.

As soon as I saw the bright slivers of juicy fruit on my lunchtime salad, I remembered the sickness I experienced last week, when, without thinking twice, I added a few slivers of apple back into my diet. Nevertheless, I took a bite or two of the yummy fruit. It really was the most delicious apple I think I have ever eaten, paired beautifully with my honey-dijon salmon salad. I carefully chose not to eat all of the apple slices, pushing the remainder to the edge of my bowl.

A bite or two is all I needed, to be hit with wrenching stomach pain a few hours later. I am a highly sensitive person, and I have learned through much trial and error that my sensitivities extend far beyond the emotional and interpersonal realms. When it comes to food, I am the quintessential example that a one-size-fits-all approach to health simply does not work. I mean, take apples. These little guys are famous for keeping the doctor away, yet I have one bite, and feel as though I am about to give birth to a slew of your sharpest kitchen knives.

Not just apples. A host of other foods praised for their health benefits simply do not sit with me. Among others, kale, cauliflower, broccoli, my body rejects. Even “superfood” goji berries have sent me to a near-hospitalization rate of deathly illness.

In my quest to feel better, I have learned that food intolerances are relatively common. There are a ton of resources available to help me understand my body’s dynamic response to various foods. I have learned to view food as information, revealing a great deal about the miracle that is human life. My only job is to listen to the messages my body sends in response to what I eat.

In general, food allergy generates a quick response (i.e., a peanut allergy causing the throat to swell), through triggering antibodies in the bloodstream, immunoglobulin E, or IgE. IgE is the most aggressive defense system our bodies have. These antibodies operate by releasing large amounts of histamine, causing swelling, mucus, and congestion. Food allergies are relatively rare. On the other hand, food intolerances are more common and far sneakier than allergies, and can appear in surprising places, especially for those of us who are highly sensitive.

Food intolerance symptoms are normally delayed until hours or even days after consumption, thereby making it difficult to link the food to the symptom. And among the umbrella term food intolerance, there are different types of intolerance, including both true intolerance and food sensitivities. True intolerance means a person’s body has trouble tolerating certain foods, such as gluten, lactose, or MSG, often because the intolerant person is genetically lacking a chemical or enzyme they need to digest the food. Food sensitivities are similar to food allergies in that they occur as an immune reaction, mobilizing antibodies (immunoglobulin G, or IgG), which produce a range of symptoms.

Food sensitivity symptoms appear as a myriad of bodily signals, including congestion, seasonal allergies, diarrhea, constipation, headaches, puffiness, bloating, heartburn, gas, bad breath, sleep problems, inability to focus, depression, moodiness, itchy skin, rashes, joint pain or stiffness, dark under-eye circles, low energy, weight gain, and the list goes on. Because every body is unique, symptoms to various foods, and which foods cause reactions, varies from person to person. According to Dr. Alejandro Junger, author of Clean and Clean Gut, the most common foods that cause symptoms of intolerance, “Wheat, dairy products, and eggs as well as corn and soy are allergic triggers in a large number of people. This is partly because of the way these foods are produced today, with chemicals, antibiotics, and lots of pesticides, but also partly because the human intestinal tract didn’t evolve to produce them in mass quantity.” He elaborates,

 If we ingest a food that triggers an allergic response, a host of processes are put in motion that consume even more energy and time. When the GALT (gut-associated lymphatic tissue), the immune cells that live close to the intestinal wall, get irritated, they start manufacturing substances – histamines and immunoglobulins – to mediate allergy, which in turn activate a series of responses, including the activation of the inflammatory system. Thus, food that cause allergies end up activating three bodywide systems: the digestive, immune, and allergic systems, all high energy consumers…simultaneously, they cause disruption all over the body – draining resources further. The chaos and confusion caused by irritating foods can drain the body, the patient, and the doctors, who typically don’t connect the problem to irritating foods or the eroded state of the intestines to the presenting symptoms.

Beginning the work of discovering which foods cause what symptoms can seem incredibly daunting. Because food sensitivities are so common, many of us become accustomed to living in a consistent state of varying degrees of illness. We put up with the symptoms because we have no idea the root cause. And over time, eating foods that do not serve our bodies causes greater detriment, often in the form of leaky gut, intestinal dysbiosis, and other intestinal problems, which in turn, can exacerbate allergic responses.

There are ways to break the cycle of symptoms caused by eating the wrong foods, such as completing a detox, an elimination diet or following programs designed to heal the gut. Methods such as these focus on rediscovering the body’s baseline health, through eliminating foods that potentially cause reaction. Once the body has had time to remove the accumulation effects from these foods, certain foods can be reintroduced, one at a time, paying close attention to any reaction. Through these practices, I have been able to slowly build eating protocol that serves my greater health. I feel great, and my body functions better than it has in years. Many of my symptoms have disappeared, including (among others) allergies, bloating, constipation, joint pain, as well as issues with attention and depression. I have found food to be a game-changer toward rediscovering how great my body is designed to feel.

Nevertheless, sometimes having food sensitivities becomes frustrating to deal with. Like when I eat the most delicious apple of my life, and my body responds with a blaring message of “you idiot”. In these moments of kitchen-floor agony, I now choose to remember the beautiful ones sprinkled in the mix. Like when I met Ryler.

I know it is no coincidence that I began babysitting Ryler on the exact day l discovered my apple sensitivity. Ryler has the same thing; apples make his tummy hurt. Age 4, last week he told me his favorite food is butternut squash. Kid after my own heart. Just like me, he is a sensitive artist just trying to get by in a world full of disastrous dangers like when his favorite Go-Go squeeZ snack has apples in it, and he (as well as his clueless new babysitter) realize too late. But, the beauty is, because of all my food sensitivities, I carry a purse full of natural remedies like fennel seeds and peppermint oil, and can now share the tricks I have learned work for me, with Ryler, when his tummy aches.

As I lie squirming amidst my cockroach house-mates (we do live in a city, after all), I remind myself of one of my favorite beautiful moments, when, just a couple days prior, the kids and I nailed a paleo pumpkin muffin recipe, and then got to share the treat with their parents. Anyone who has dabbled in the world of gluten-free baking knows it can be an excursion into a culinary wild wild west, full of sifting through endless layers of coconut flour to, every so often, strike gold. This moment was one of those gold-strikes. Sharing the tasty, pumpkin-y, (relatively) sugar-free (save for a bit of honey), cakes, knowing that what we were eating not only tasted good, but was good for our bodies — well that, to me, is pure magic. As is the fact that because of doing the hard work of uncovering my food sensitivities, I now (mainly) follow a dietary plan that works for my body, in which I can thrive. Every so often, something surprising like apples, or not-so-surprising like the extra glass of wine I probably should have said no to, throws me off. But the fact that I can feel the difference between foods that further my health, and those that hinder, is amazing. No longer numbed out, I have woken up to both the apple babies as well as the magic in a gluten-free pumpkin muffin.

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