Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Diet & Inflammation, Part II

The old Johnnie Taylor song reminded us that where there's smoke, there's fire. In the human body, where there's pain, there's inflammation. In teaching therapeutic yoga, I rarely find pain without accompanying inflammation.

Inflammation is the body's response to irritants. In some cases the irritant may be faulty biomechanics, while in other cases the cause may be mental stress. In both cases, Yoga is a powerful ally in healing. Quite often, however, yoga breathing and postures alone do not root out the cause of the inflammation. Without getting to the cause, the benefits of Yoga are often short-lived.

As mentioned in Part 1, inappropriate food choices are a common cause of inflammation. Food choices that are clearly detrimental to health include too many refined foods, lack of fresh fruits and vegetables, or excess consumption of fried foods. Quite often, however, the food choices responsible for chronic inflammation are not as obvious. Frequently we'll find the food (or foods) that sparks inflammation in one person's body works just fine for someone else. I've observed students relieve chronic pain by eliminating foods as varied as pasta, jellybeans, chocolate, green tea and peanut butter. This specific reaction to food is often referred to as a food sensitivity.

Food sensitivity is remarkably common. Food sensitivity is such a common barometer of poor health and pain that I often discuss diet when teaching Therapeutic Yoga. When I begin speaking of diet, many students assume I'll insist they become vegetarians. While I appreciate the many benefits of vegetarianism, I rarely find a relationship between systemic, chronic inflammation and a diet including a modest amount of meat. Systemic inflammation arises when we eat the foods that our immune system identifies as a threat.

For those suffering from hay fever, an inappropriate immune system response is a yearly curse. While friends and neighbors enjoy the sights and smells of spring/summer, some of us have immune systems that register these pollens as body-invaders, and launch a full-scale immune system attack. The runny nose and itchy eyes are the body's way to fight the perceived invader. With allergies, what bothers one person can delight another. The key is in the immune system - if your immune system considers an outside substance an invader, whether right or wrong, it will mobilize a response to the perceived invader. While we're accustomed to immune responses such as runny nose and itchy eyes, these are just a few of the possible immune system reactions. Symptoms of food sensitivity rarely mimic hay fever, even though the immune system reaction is similar. In cases of food sensitivity, the immune system reactions can be as varied as foggy thinking, low energy, joint pain, anxiety, headaches, sinus trouble or ringing in the ears. Each body is unique, as is the response of its immune system!

What are the wrong foods? This is where our work becomes interesting. There are very few bad foods. There are, however, those foods that are inappropriate for a specific individual's system. The trick is tracking down those specific foods. Thankfully we find patterns to food sensitivity. While any food can potentially cause an immune system reaction in an individual, certain foods are the most common irritants. The most common culprits are foods containing dairy products, wheat, corn and soy.

Tracking down food sensitivity is best accomplished through an Elimination Diet. As the name suggests, this diet involves eliminating potentially irritating foods from the diet for a period of time, usually two-four weeks. By eliminating the potential causes of an inappropriate immune system response, the body's level of inflammation will normalize - sometimes within just a few weeks. Once the system has normalized, by slowly adding one food at a time back into the diet, potential food sensitivities can be readily identified. For those interested in attaining optimal health, I strongly recommend following an Elimination Diet for four weeks. While the Elimination Diet may seem cumbersome, compared with a life of pain, medications or low energy, the Elimination Diet is a cheap and easy path to greater vitality!

To derive the best results from an Elimination Diet, I suggest keeping the following foods out of your diet for four weeks:

-caffeine (coffee, tea, colas)
-corn products (tortilla, chips, polenta, cornstarch, thickeners)
-dairy products (milk, cheese, yogurt, cream)
-food colorings, dyes
-glutenous grains (rye, barley, oats, spelt, kamut, seitan, hops)
-peanuts (peanut butter, peanut oil)
-pesticides and chemical spoilage retardants
-red meat (usually more a problem with additives than with the protein itself)
-soy products (tofu, tempeh, soy milk, soy protein powder, soy oil)
-sugar substitutes (aspartame, saccharine)
-sugar substitutes (aspartame, saccharine)
-wheat products (pasta, breads, processed foods)

The Elimination Diet requires discipline and vigilance - as the name implies, it's all about eliminating the potential irritants. Simply decreasing consumption of these foods has little benefit if you're intent on discerning a food sensitivity. Even a trace of the wrong food mobilizes a powerful immune system reaction. If you have hay fever you're inhaling a very small amount of pollen, yet this pollen mobilizes a powerful response. If you're consuming the wrong foods, even in microscopic quantities, you'll feel just as poorly as if you'd eaten a lot. While I hope you all take the time and effort to try a period of Elimination Diet, unless you're going to be vigilant in completely eliminating the consumption of potential irritants, there's little point to going to the trouble unless you're thorough and detail-oriented about reading labels.

Be particularly watchful of corn, wheat and dairy sneaking into your diet. Many spices are made more pourable by the addition of wheat and yeast. Many cheese substitutes contain cassein, the protein found in milk. Soy appears almost everywhere - read labels, even if you're sure there's no way the product can contain a potential irritant!

Quite often the body goes through a re-calibration period in the first week of an Elimination Diet, and people often feel worse before they feel better. This is the point where many people revert to their old habits. If you can make it through the first week or so, you'll find yourself feeling so much better that it becomes easier and easier to follow these strict guidelines. I've found many people stick with this diet for the long-haul, as they discover that they feel better than they have in decades!

Once you've cleansed your system, you may want to experiment with slowly bringing foods back into your diet. Like a good scientist, make sure you don't have too many variables. Start with adding one food back into your diet, and watch the results for a few days. If things are okay, then add another food a few days later. It can be useful to keep a journal to document how you feel. Be sure to note how you feel after eating a particular food, how you sleep, your digestive function and any unusual sensations that may arise. As mentioned previously, the symptoms of food sensitivity can be surprisingly broad.

I've seen many people resolve long-standing health concerns by eliminating the foods that irritate their system. If you've found your health improve by changing your eating habits, I hope you'll share your story with us by commenting below



Anonymous said...

This is a very pertinent subject for me at this time.
Am I correct in believing that fish, chicken, eggs, seeds, rice, quinoa, and fresh fruits and vegetables are all okay to eat on the elimination diet?

Scott Anderson said...

Yes, you're correct with your observation. The only caveat is if there's evidence of a yeast overgrowth in the gut. If that's the case, a Specific Carbohydrate Diet may have utility.

Unless there's good reason to believe there's a yeast overgrowth, however, I'd stick to the basics of an Elimination Diet.

Eggs can also be problematic for some people. If there's any question about how well your system handles eggs, I'd probably eliminate them, too - just to be sure.

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