Food Allergies vs Food Intolerances

Food “Allergies”

“And what are these dark circles under her eyes?” the anxious mother asked me as she held a pale and pasty skinned dishrag of a child on her lap. “Sheila” was dragging. Now most doctors fear kids in their office because all too frequently they will “rearrange” everything they can get their hands on in 5 minutes or less. Kids approach this task of destruction with all the manic enthusiasm of the TV show shoppers careening up and down shopping center isles who were told they can keep all the merchandise they can collect in 5 minutes. Looking into “Sheila’s” weary eyes I almost wished for some of that “kid energy” and would have gladly picked up after her if she could have mustered the energy.

I explained to the mother that some doctors have correlated raccoon eyes with food allergies and hence the name “allergic shiners” was coined. “Sheila” would be diagnosed by many doctors as “allergic” to certain foods. Skin prick tests, blood tests, electrodermal tests – all these would assess sensitivity and most probably the mother would be told that she can feed her child “yam, lamb, pear and quinoa”. On the other hand, the list foods the child is “allergic” to might be pages long. What’s going on? What is behind this food allergy epidemic?

Any discussion of allergies need to be based upon an understanding of the immune system. To begin with, let’s remember back to age two when we finally got it that “I am me and you are not me”. Notice that at this point we don’t get it that you are you. We only know that you are not me. This egocentric and simplistic view of the world is both the beauty and the power of our immune system. Immunologists describe the immune system as processing data in terms of “self and non-self”. Not very sophisticated but tremendously reliable and efficient. “Self” is safe from the body’s digestive forces but “non-self” gets annhilated.

Consider digestion. Remember that carrot you just ate or that cheeseburger you woofed down? How did your body know to digest it and not your stomach lining? How did it know to let loose the potent digestive acids so that they tear apart last night’s filet minion while sparing your own gut? Think of it! We digest tripe but not our own intestines. (That reminds me of the riddle: What is the smartest invention ever? Answer: the thermos. It keeps cold things cold and hot things hot. How does it know?)

Well, I don’t know how our immune system does it. (A touchstone for me in practice is “Not only is the human being (body, soul spirit) more complex than we understand, it is more complex than we can understand.) My task isn’t to know the whys but simply to recognize disease patterns and to offer clinical advice in order to remedy


I have a confession. Despite being a holistic doctor, I don’t really believe in allergies. The concept is too static and determined for my way of thinking. I’m with Paracelsus (1492-1541) who wrote “There are no incurable illnesses only incurable people.”

Bernie Siegel, MD, a more recent prophet crying in the wilderness, stresses that there is no such thing as “false hope”. Think about it. Key concept. So, rather than sentencing some poor soul to food

“allergy”, I prefer to think about the process as food “intolerance” – something one can get over or overcome. After all, if I poured 20 gallons of pure water down your throat, you might appear to have an allergic reaction but the problem is really one of processing and intolerance of, in this case, volume.

My approach, somewhat unorthodox, is not to spend a lot of money or time determining what someone is allergic to but rather to try and understand why some is allergic. Two very different questions. For example, “Sally” had never been allergic in her life until approximately 4 months after she was raped. “Jon” had never been allergic until about 6 months after he was laid off unexpectedly from a career he had worked at for 20 (loyal) years. “Lynn” had never been allergic to until after she miscarried.

What do these people have in common? They have all been violated in a profound way and have not been able to process the trauma. The physiologic consequence of such trauma is that, having once been so penetrated, the membranes which should maintain a barrier between self and non-self have become less confident of who is invited to the party and who is not. They lost their bouncer and the doors are wide open. “Tolerance” of riff-raff (i.e. incompletely digested foods or, immunologically speaking “non-self”) creates intoxication of the blood.

What was “Sheila” allergic to? Who knows? (Odds are in order of probability, diary, wheat, eggs, corn (i.e. corn syrup), sugar, chocolate, caffeine, additives, preservatives and any food she eats more than four times a week). Why is she allergic? That’s the question. When she and I were finally able to speak together, she told me about losing her appetite since her parents’ recent divorce.

Frequently, a weakening of digestive forces leads to “loss of appetite”. What weakens the digestive forces? Stress. Fear. Unhealthy foods but also, and specifically in this case, a broken heart. In the Christian tradition, the heart is the seat of fortitude (Richard the lion-hearted) but the Hebrew tradition places fortitude in the intestines (“He’s got guts!”). Wherever it resides, “Sheila” lost it before she developed “allergic shiners”. I posit a causality. The proof is in the pudding. Therapy is in process but three weeks after I recommended no dairy (and that means no ice cream too!) and gave her digestive enzymes, “Sheila”, her appetite restored, returned one happy day and “rearranged” my office. Rosy cheeks and all.

To your health!

Bradford S. Weeks, M.D. © 1992

practices Corrective Medicine and Psychiatry


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