Inflammatory Bowel Disease • Ulcerative Colitis • Crohn's Disease • Irritable Bowel Syndrome
A Pain in the Gut

Food Intolerance

Food intolerance is not the same as food allergy. With an allergy, the immune system is triggered. For example, a peanut allergy is a true allergy.

With a food intolerance, your body just doesn't digest a particular food properly. Sometimes this is obvious, for example in Celiac Disease, where gluten can't be digested. Many people are lactose intolerance, meaning they lack the enzyme to digest milk sugar.

These examples are well-understood and therefore accepted by the Western medical establishment. But there may be other more subtle food intolerances. For example, many people think the underlying cause of all autoimmune disease (not just IBD) is the profound change in diet that occurred when humans shifted from a hunter-gatherer society (Paleolithic) to an agricultural society (Neolithic) about 10,000 years ago.

One reason I'm convinced by this is so many separate threads of evidence converge to give the same advice for different reasons. Many different experts recommend that people suffering from IBD eliminating some or all of the foods introduced with agriculture: grain, beans, milk products, and refined sugar. Some say not to eat grain because it's composed of a particular type of polysaccaride. Some say not to eat grain because it contains insoluble fiber, which is generally bad for people with bowel disease. Some say not to eat grain because it contains lectins that confuse the body's immune system (see below for details). They all have different reasons, but they all say the same thing.

You see a similar phenomenon with milk products. Should you avoid milk because it's mucous-causing, because many people have mild lactose intolerance and don't realize it, or because we did not evolve drinking the milk of other animals? Does it matter? Many experts give the same advice for different reasons.

Some people have reported that eliminating these foods from their diets led to long-term remissions. I can't say that happened with me. Maybe, for some people, once the damage is done you need extra measures to reverse it.

How Diet Can Trigger Autoimmune Response

Loren Cordain, a professor at Colorado State University in Ft. Collins, Colorado, wrote a fascinating article about why and how eating grains and beans can cause autoimmune disease (references below). Here's a brief synopsis.

Both grains and beans are very high in lectins. Lectins have both a carbohydrate and a protein component. The carb component lets them adhere to body cells. The protein component is very similar to the proteins in the human body. This phenomenon, called molecular mimicry, evolved to protect plants from insect predators. Other plants have lectins, but not in the amounts found in grains and beans.

Lectins can cause leaky gut syndrome. When the lectins escape the bowel, they are attacked by the immune system. The protein structure is remembered by the immune system, as always happens when the immune system responds so it can be more efficient the next time the danger is encountered.

Unfortunately, in some people, the immune system can get confused by the similarity between the lectin protein and the proteins in the self. Depending on the person's genetic predisposition (all autoimmune disease is caused by a combination of genetic predisposition and environmental triggers), the immune system will then attack the colon (causing inflammatory bowel disease), the nerve tissue (leading to multiple sclerosis), etc.

Cordain suggests that not ingesting foods very high in lectins (specifically, grains and beans) will prevent the constant triggering of the autoimmue response, thus allowing remission.


Grains and Legumes: Biochemical Evidence of their Evolutionary Discordance
The Awful Truth About Eating Grains
Cereal grains: humanity’s double edged sword. World Rev Nutr Diet 1999; 84:19-73. (#22 in the list of articles)


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Last updated 11 Apr 09