Tuning in to food sensitivities

Tuning in to food sensitivities

What do a 50-year-old Maine woman and a Boston Red Sox slugger have in common? They both are using knowledge about food sensitivities to try to improve their health.

Heather Rae, who lives in Richmond, used to get terrible headaches and suffered from anxiety and depression off and on for many years. She also experienced bloating after eating some of her favorite foods. But after a trip to a chiropractor who had become a proponent of food sensitivity therapy, she decided to undergo a series of food intolerance tests.

The results showed that Rae was severely intolerant to beef and eggs. She also was moderately sensitive to some common foods: peanuts, baker’s yeast, shrimp, cow’s milk and corn, along with some more surprising foods, such as garlic, ginger, zucchini and pears. Rae has been avoiding those foods for only a short time, but she says she has already seen a positive effect.

“I just feel better,” she says. “It’s a bit mind-blowing.”

The food intolerance testing that Rae underwent, called the ALCAT (antigen leukocyte cellular antibody test), is a blood screening that measures the body’s response to various foods and chemicals.

According to proponents of the ALCAT, food intolerance is not the same thing as being allergic. The theory is that if your body is sensitive to a certain food, it triggers a milder immune system reaction than a full-blown allergy attack would, which is why it may go undetected. The reaction, nevertheless, may create inflammation in the body and divert the immune system from fighting other battles. Through time, food intolerance can cause weight gain, headaches and other ailments.

While some criticize the tests as pseudo science, others have used the knowledge gained from the tests to recover from injury, lose weight and improve athletic performance. Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz has spoken about his experience with the ALCAT, which showed he’s sensitive to chicken, shrimp, wheat, sugar and alcohol. Ortiz was thought to be on a downward spiral, career-wise, until he totally changed his diet last season. Not only did he drop 20 to 30 pounds, but also he hit almost as many home runs in 2012 as he did in 2011 – even though he played in 50 fewer games.

The ALCAT has been around for a couple of decades, but it is often a test of last resort for many people who have suffered for years with ailments that seem to have no concrete cause. Part of the reason for that is its price tag. The food intolerance tests can cost anywhere from $200 to $1,000 and are not covered by many health insurance plans. The price depends on how many foods are included in the testing. For example, if you wanted to test for only 50 foods you suspected you might be intolerant to, it might cost about $200. But, if you had no clue what foods were affecting your health, you could order tests that look at your body’s interaction with more than 300 food items, food additives and chemicals, as well as different kinds of mold.

Rae tested for 200 foods, additives and chemicals, which according to her chiropractor, Dr. Aubrey Gail of Topsham, generally cost $470. Rae said she received a discount from the base price.

“It’s the best money I’ve ever spent going to a doctor,” she says.

While blood is drawn in-house, Gail sends the results to a laboratory in Florida where it is tested and the results are reproduced before a report is given. The whole process takes about 10 days.

“It’s important to make sure the information is reliable and results are reproducible,” he says.

Gail says test results are often an eye-opener for his patients. Sometimes they confirm what people already suspected, especially if they find out they’re intolerant to wheat or dairy products. Other times the results are surprising.

“Heather never would have thought she had a sensitivity to beef,” he says. “Mine came up strawberries, cloves and lima beans.”

Rae is convinced that her food sensitivities contributed to her headaches and mood issues.

“I’ve been told that an immune system on attack uses up seratonin, and a lack of seratonin causes stress,” she explains. “All the times I went to a doctor suffering from anxiety. What if one had given me this test instead of another medication?”

When Rae looks in the refrigerator now, she realizes that she shouldn’t be eating half of what’s in there. Cheese, she says, will be the most difficult to give up, since it was something she often craved. That’s one thing she’s noticed about the foods on her “avoid” list.

“If you eat something a lot, it can create an intolerance,” she says. “If you’re craving it, it’s probably bad for you.”

Rae’s results don’t mean she can never have the foods on her “sensitivity list.” One of her favorite things, for example, were the sticky buns from the local Richmond bakery, which she would treat herself to at least once a week.

“I just need to know that if I have one of those sticky buns, I’ll get the bloating,” she says.

She also comforts herself with the knowledge that the tests showed many things she is not intolerant to, such as pork, turkey, lamb and “tons of seafood.”

“It’s fascinating how specific it is to each person,” she says. “I find it comforting to have it documented.”

Heather Rae’s chiropractor, Dr. Aubrey Gail of Topsham, takes a blood sample for a screening that measures the body’s response to various foods and chemicals.   

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