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When Food Makes You Ill

by Linda Lazarides BA(more info)

listed in colon health, originally published in issue 91 - August 2003

Every living creature needs food. In the Third World, a human death occurs every few seconds from starvation. But food is also foreign to your body. It is possible to lose your evolutionary ability to tolerate food. Many people become so ill whatever they eat, that they too are on the verge of starvation.

Just as your outer skin protects you from external environmental hazards, the mucosa of your gastrointestinal tract is your inner skin, which should allow only desirable items to pass from your intestines into your body. Desirable items are water, simple sugars, amino acids, fatty acids, vitamins, minerals and other nutritional molecules. They are produced from the food you eat by the action of your digestion, and are eventually incorporated into your cells and tissues where they perform useful functions.

Food Dangers

Not all the contents of your intestines are beneficial. Food contains many natural toxins, such as lectins and enzyme inhibitors, produced by plants to deter predators. Even the protein you eat is eventually broken down by your body into toxic ammonia. Fortunately, the effects of all these toxins can be minimized by a healthy liver and digestive system.

Undigested food is also a source of toxicity. In the lower part of the digestive system it can be a major irritant, causing inflammation and bacterial/fungal fermentation. Undigested carbohydrate feeds toxin-producing strains of bacteria and fungi which reside in the digestive system. Their toxins aggravate the inflammation, often resulting in a 'leaky gut' or weakening of the all-important barrier between your intestinal contents and your bloodstream.

In advanced cases of leaky gut syndrome, nutrient absorption diminishes as the mucosal cells suffer inflammatory damage. At the same time, the inflammation causes gaps to open between the mucosal cells, allowing the wholesale penetration of toxins, undigested food particles and other debris into the bloodstream. Here, antibodies combine with this debris to form circulating immune complexes which lodge in tissues and set off local inflammatory reactions. These reactions will probably be diagnosed by doctors as sinus congestion, headaches, asthma, arthritis, eczema, fatigue, irritable bowel or drowsiness, and by alternative practitioners as food allergies or food intolerances.

Most people experience reactions to just one or two foods, but this can develop into a more serious problem if the underlying poor digestion is not improved. A proportion of individuals go on to become 'universal reactors' and have to tread a fine line between dying of starvation and living with constant illness provoked simply by eating.

What Causes Poor Digestion?

Many nutrients, including protein and zinc, are needed to make the main digestive fluids: stomach acid, bile and pancreatic enzymes. But zinc deficiency is common and there is every possibility that it can quietly undermine our ability to digest our food and extract the nutrients we need.

The final stages of carbohydrate digestion depend on enzymes produced by the mucosal cells lining the small intestine. These cells are very vulnerable to the inflammatory damage described above. The more damage they suffer, the less carbohydrate you are capable of digesting and absorbing. The undigested carbohydrate becomes available to harmful bacteria and fungi, such as Candida albicans, which can multiply out of control, causing further damage and destruction to the mucosal cells.

Stress is a major cause of poor digestion. The job of stress hormones is to withdraw the blood supply from the visceral organs towards the fighting and running muscles of the arms and legs. Stimulants, such as coffee, sugar and nicotine, which encourage the release of stress hormones, can have similar effects. People under stress may also bolt their food, creating extra work for their digestive juices.

Treatments for Poor Digestion

Digestion and absorption inevitably suffer when the blood supply to the digestive system is chronically reduced. In Ayurvedic and Oriental medicine, this is known as a deficiency of 'digestive fire' or 'spleen chi'. If you have received either of these diagnoses, or if you suffer from a condition associated with coldness and weak circulation (especially chronic fatigue syndrome) it is important to avoid eating 'Yin' foods, except in very small amounts. These are cold, raw foods, including raw fruits and salads, and especially chilled food and cold drinks, since these will cool your digestion even further. You should also avoid other foods with an excessively 'Yin' effect, or which are particularly susceptible to fermentation, such as sugar, starch, dairy products, coffee and alcohol. Some herbs, especially 'cold bitters', such as golden seal and gentian, also have a pronounced cooling effect and should be avoided. More comprehensive dietary guidelines are given in my book Treat Yourself with Nutritional Therapy.

Certain spices have been medicinally used for thousands of years to improve the digestion. It is no coincidence that these spices, which include cayenne (chilli), ginger and cinnamon, are also circulatory stimulants and may work by increasing the local blood supply as they travel down the digestive tract. But don't be too heavy-handed with these spices; this could result in irritation rather than gentle stimulation.

Apart from 'diet and supplements', one of the most effective treatments reported by chronic fatigue sufferers is osteopathy. As we know, the nerves of the spinal cord control the body's muscles. If your spine is out of alignment, this could cause some muscles to go into chronic spasm and diminish the blood supply to your digestive system. Chronic muscle spasms and poor circulation are also caused by magnesium deficiency, which is a widespread problem in chronic fatigue syndrome.


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About Linda Lazarides BA

Linda Lazaridesis a nutritional health expert, founder of the British Association of Nutritional Therapists, and worked with a GP for several years to develop her treatment methods. She is author of eight books, including the Amino Acid Report and Treat Yourself with Nutritional Therapy and teaches 1-year internet-based training course for Naturopathic Nutritionists. Visit Linda's website at

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