Julia had consulted 13 specialists in three years. Despite her efforts, she still had received no definite diagnosis. When she came to my office for her first appointment, she brought a file of medical records two inches thick, full of normal test results.
When I took her medical history, Julia told me her symptoms: pain in her joints, head, neck and abdomen; tingling in her arms and legs; fatigue; and problems with mental focus—brain fog.
These symptoms had appeared suddenly about three years earlier, when she was 38, and they had got steadily worse.
When I asked Julia what her health had been like before that, she revealed that she’d never really enjoyed great health. She had experienced asthma in childhood. Then gastrointestinal symptoms started in her teens: abdominal pain and diarrhoea with various foods, but following no clear pattern.
Just as troubling, she began gaining weight, about 40 pounds over 20 years, despite numerous attempts at dieting. I saw a pattern emerge that would explain all of her mysterious symptoms.
My clinical experience helped me recognize that Julia’s problems were caused by a hidden allergy. Julia was absolutely determined to get well, so she followed my instructions for a cleansing diet.
The results were dramatic. At the end of a week, most of her joint pain was gone, her mind felt much clearer and she’d lost five pounds. Her headaches disappeared almost completely, her digestion was the best it had been in 20 years and her energy was great. But she still had occasional attacks of joint pain, headaches or diarrhoea, which could last for a day or two. One such incident occurred after drinking white wine, another after eating potato salad.
When I reviewed the foods that still made Julia feel unwell, I concluded that her problems were not primarily with the foods themselves, but with sulphites—common food additives and preservatives known to cause allergic reactions.
Two nutrients help your body to detoxify sulphites: vitamin B12 and a mineral called molybdenum. In one study, when children with sulphite-sensitive asthma were given vitamin B12 supplements, 80 per cent of them experienced an improvement in tolerance for sulphites.1
I told Julia to supplement her diet with 1 mg per day of vitamin B12 and 300 mcg per day of molybdenum.
Within a month, she noticed that when she ate dried fruits or vinegar, both preserved with sulphites, she could tolerate them without having symptoms.
Although initial lab tests had revealed numerous signs of inflammation in her body, when the same tests were repeated three months later, all evidence of inflammation was gone, along with her symptoms.
Allergic reactions are commonly thought of as misguided or overreactive responses of the immune system, but I believe they are due to a lack of function of key immune cells, so they can actually be thought of as resulting from immune deficiency rather than immune excess.
Most people think of immunity as if the immune system were a radio, with the main control over its output being the volume dial: louder or softer, stronger or weaker. But your immune system is much more like an orchestra. There are many sections, and the output from each section must be synchronized with the output from every other section. When you want more from the strings, you have to quiet the horns or the strings will be drowned out.
Organizing the synchronicity of immune responses is the job of a group of white blood cells called ‘lymphocytes’. They’re the conductors of the body’s immune-system orchestra.
For people with allergies, one particular type of lymphocyte seems to be the weak link. These are the regulatory T cells, or Tregs, which limit inflammation by turning off unwanted immune responses.
Numerous studies have shown that, in people with allergies, the Tregs are not functioning properly. This leads to the unwanted immune responses that are the hallmark of allergy.
Scientists in Norway studied immune responses in children with allergy to cow’s milk who outgrew their allergy and compared them with the responses of children who remained allergic to milk.2
All the children in the study followed a totally dairy-free diet for an average of six months. Their prior symptoms, which included diarrhoea, vomiting and eczema, cleared quickly. Milk was then reintroduced into their diets slowly and cautiously, building up to 4 oz a day. About half the children no longer showed any adverse reaction to milk, but the other half experienced a return of symptoms, and the milk had to be stopped. A week later, all the children’s blood was tested.
The major immune difference between the two groups was that the children who had outgrown their allergy had a higher level of Tregs in their blood. Further testing demonstrated that the Tregs were responsible for preventing the allergic response.
The Immune Balance Diet
Science teaches us that Tregs love vitamins and phytonutrients from fruit, vegetables and tea. When Tregs are working well, they help us overcome allergies. The goal of what I call the Immune Balance Diet is to help you feed your Tregs and support their function. Following the diet for six to 12 months can lead to a gradual subsiding of allergies.
Dietary factors found to enhance Tregs include folates from food, vitamin A and various plant-derived nutrients called ‘flavonoids’, especially one found in tea.3
Some flavonoids also inhibit the activity of cells that cause inflammation, so they can knock out allergies.4
So what foods do you eat to balance immunity? To begin with, at least nine servings of brightly coloured vegetables and fruit every day, choosing those that are rich in natural folates, vitamin A and fibre (see page 30). Folates from food are needed for cell growth and repair, immune function and brain function. Their deficiency can cause anaemia, fatigue, depression, cognitive disturbances and immune impairment. Brightly coloured vegetables and fruit are also rich sources
On the Immune Balance Diet, the Immune Balance Soup and Immune Balance Smoothie can be the staples of your menu (see right and page 34). The Smoothie is rich in folates, flavonoids and vitamin A; the Soup is packed with nutrients, and one bowl supplies four servings of vegetables.
You can add other ingredients of your choice to the soup, such as whole spring onions, beans, chicken or fish, and additional spices like garlic or ginger. Keep the original ingredients and add to them to make this soup your own.
In addition to the Soup and the Smoothie, you can eat any foods that you’re not allergic to: meat, fish, poultry, eggs, nuts, seeds, beans, fruit, vegetables, herbs and spices, even dairy products and whole grains. If you’re not allergic to them, nuts and seeds are an excellent source of vitamins, minerals, protein and fibre, and make a great snack food.
Natural folates from food
In the box on page 30, I’ve listed the best food sources of natural folates and the amounts you’ll get in a common portion of each. Dark-green leafy vegetables and legumes like lentils and beans are among the best sources. Choose those you like and eat them regularly as part of the Immune Balance Diet. You can add beans, peas, lentils and asparagus as desired to the Immune Balance Soup. Asparagus can be added fresh, but the legumes need to be precooked because the soup is boiled for just 20 minutes, which is not enough time to cook legumes.
I designed the Immune Balance Smoothie to provide ample folates from food. One 12-oz glass a day can supply abundant natural folates for optimal Treg function. In addition, the Smoothie provides ample amounts of vitamin A from vegetarian sources and carefully chosen flavonoids.
Vitamin A from food sources
Vitamin A is a general term used to identify families of naturally occurring molecules called retinoids and provitamin A carotenoids. Retinoids come mostly from animals, and carotenoids come mostly from plants. You can make all the retinoids you need from the provitamin A carotenoids found in plants, which means that vegetarians may enjoy a better vitamin A status than omnivores if their diets are rich in vegetables and fruit.5
The names of the provitamin A carotenoids are beta-carotene, alpha-carotene and beta-cryptoxanthin.
I believe the best way to meet your need for vitamin A is from food, especially carotenoid-rich vegetables like carrots, spinach and sweet potato, which also give you flavonoids, fibre and phytonutrients at the same time. A list of plant foods high in vitamin A is shown in the box on page 30. These foods also give you related carotenoids like lycopene, lutein and zeaxanthin.
Although your body does not convert them into vitamin A, they may yield health benefits through important mechanisms of their own. The Immune Balance Soup and Immune Balance Smoothie are designed to supply ample vitamin A from plant foods. Carotenoids and retinoids are both better absorbed if you consume fat along with them. That’s why the recipe for Immune Balance Soup begins by having you sauté carrots in olive oil.
The best-kept secret in nutrition
It’s my belief that the chronic inflammatory disorders that result from a Western diet and lifestyle are in part caused by flavonoid deficiencies. A high intake of dietary flavonoids has been associated with a reduced risk of heart disease, diabetes, cancer and asthma in research studies. The modern Western diet contains about 1,000 mg/day of flavonoids, whereas the traditional Asian diet contains about four times that amount, much of it from herbs, spices and teas.
There are more than 400 flavonoids in the human diet. As a group, flavonoids have potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects. One of two flavonoids that are important for Tregs is found in tea; let’s call it ‘tea flavonoid’. Although green tea is a well-known source of this flavonoid, the levels in oolong tea are just as high.6
The ability of tea flavonoid to combat inflammation has been studied for more than 25 years. For instance, University of California researchers measured the function and number of Tregs in the blood of overweight and lean people. Both their function and number were impaired by obesity, but restored by exposing blood cells to tea flavonoid.7
Further laboratory research has shown that the increase in Tregs produced by tea flavonoid causes a reduction in blood levels of the IgE antibody, indicating a functional anti-allergic effect.8
Low doses of tea flavonoid appear to work better at reducing inflammation than very high doses.9 That’s why I prefer to get tea flavonoid from drinking tea, four cups a day, and not from dietary supplements.
The super-antioxidant in strawberries
Another well-kept secret in nutrition is the flavonoid fisetin; the richest dietary source of fisetin is strawberries. This potent antioxidant increases the concentration of glutathione in your cells, according to research from the Salk Institute for Biological Studies.10 Glutathione helps to protect your Tregs from damage; a lack of it makes Tregs susceptible to destruction by environmental and food toxins,11 one factor contributing to the allergy epidemic.
Besides protecting Tregs from damage by enhancing glutathione levels, administration of fisetin decreases several aspects of the allergic response, and protects laboratory animals from allergic asthma.12
I designed the Immune Balance Smoothie to supply you with fisetin, tea flavonoid, folates from food and vitamin A. Make it fresh every day. One 12-oz glass supplies four servings of fruit and vegetables, almost half of what you need daily. To enhance the amount of tea flavonoid in the green tea used in the Smoothie, I recommend that you boil the tea leaves for five minutes instead of just steeping the tea bag in hot water.
In addition to enhancing eating pleasure, parsley is an excellent source of nutrients. It is high in carotenoids, with even more of these nutrient s than carrots. Parsley is also a great source of the flavonoid apigenin. Like many other flavonoids, apigenin has anti-allergic and anti-inflammatory effects, but it also activates a switch in the immune response.
Exciting research on apigenin from the Nanjing Medical University in China found that the apigenin switch decreases the activity of allergy-inducing lymphocytes and reduces IgE levels.13 This is another reason to eat the Immune Balance Soup, which is packed with parsley.
Brian was a 35-year-old software designer who had had eczema since childhood. At its worst it covered his arms, face and legs, with a special predilection for his eyelids and the folds inside his elbows and behind his knees. The scaly, itchy rash would usually clear in summer, but the rest of the year he’d control it by applying cortisone cream. Stress always made it worse.
Brian had already started eating what I call a ‘pseudo-healthy’ diet. He ate lots of salad; he had gone gluten-free, cut out red meat, and started using alternative grains like amaranth and quinoa, and he was mixing hemp seeds into his fat-free Greek yoghurt. But then he’d pour 2 Tbsp of agave nectar into the yoghurt, add 2 tsp of honey to his organic green tea, and stay up till two in the morning surfing the internet while munching on gluten-free cookies.
Brian’s road to healing was like a roller-coaster ride. He began an elimination diet and his skin became clearer than it had been in years. But when he stopped using cortisone cream, his skin began to itch again. I explained to Brian that his skin had become dependent on cortisone and he was experiencing a withdrawal reaction.
I gave him a two-week schedule for tapering off the cream, which diminished the rebound effect of steroid withdrawal, and the healing of his skin continued.
When I first saw him, he was about 30 pounds overweight and had not been able to lose weight even when he cut back on sweets. I explained to him that steroids interfere with weight loss, so as long as he relied on steroid creams to control his eczema, he’d have a hard time with weight control no matter how few calories he ate or how much he exercised.
After stopping the steroids and following the Immune Balance Diet, weight loss would come naturally.
Over the summer holidays, with many family celebrations came many opportunities to eat cakes and candy, sometimes with a beer or two, and each time Brian’s eczema would flare up, typically a day or two later. And each time it took a week to heal.
These changes were not due to food allergies. Brian’s body was very sensitive to the inflammatory effects of sugar. For Brian, itching of his skin was like a barometer of his sugar intake.
The Immune Balance Smoothie
Velvety, creamy and delicious, this smoothie packs a ton of nutrients in one easy-to-sip beverage.
• 1 cup strawberries, fresh or frozen
• 1 medium avocado, peeled, pit removed
• 1 cup chopped arugula (or baby salad rocket)
• ½ head romaine lettuce, chopped (6 leaves)
• 2 Tbsp freshly ground chia seeds
• 1 cup green tea, brewed for 5 minutes, added hot
• 1 medium banana, if desired
Place the fruit in a blender and layer the vegetables on top. Add the chia seeds, pour in the green tea and blend until the mixture is velvety smooth. If refrigerated after blending, the smoothie will become thicker and creamier. Chia seeds are an excellent source of fibre and omega-3 fats.
Note: If you have latex or birch pollen allergy, do not include avocado, which can provoke allergic reactions in people with such allergies. If you have latex allergy, don’t include a banana, as this may also cross-react with latex. If you’re allergic to strawberries, leave them out. If you’re not allergic to blueberries, you may substitute these instead. If you’re allergic to any other ingredient, please leave it out.
The Immune Balance Soup
This soul-satisfying soup gives you an abundance of amazing vegetables in an easy-to-make and easy-to-eat meal—four servings of vegetables per large mug. It’s rich in anti-inflammatory carotenoids and flavonoids. Once you start making it, everyone will think you took a class at a healthy cooking school.
• 3 cups sliced carrots
• 3 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
• 1 cup chopped parsley (you can include the stems)
• 2 cups chopped spring (green) onions (green parts only)
• 12 oz broccoli, cut small (you can include the tender stalks)
• 3 oz baby kale, chopped
• 1 tsp turmeric powder
• ¼ tsp freshly ground black pepper (or more to taste; black pepper enhances absorption of the anti-inflammatory flavonoids in turmeric)
• Salt to taste
• Shredded daikon (white) radish, for the garnish
Sauté carrots in olive oil for 10 minutes, then add the other vegetables and spices. Heat and stir for 1 minute, then add 12 cups of water and bring to a boil, stirring as needed. Cover and simmer for 20 minutes.
Just before eating, add 1 Tbsp of freshly shredded daikon radish per serving. Uncooked daikon contains a very special enzyme called ‘myrosinase’, which enhances the nutritional value of cooked broccoli. Or, if you like, let the soup to cool and purée it to a creamy consistency, then reheat it before serving. The daikon should always be added just before eating.
Note: If you’re allergic to any ingredient, please leave it out. If you have any kind of problem with your kidneys, or a personal or family history of kidney stones, or if you suffer from chronic vulvar pain or bladder discomfort, check with your doctor before increasing your consumption of kale and parsley, as dietary oxalates can adversely affect some people with those disorders.
Make time for oolong tea
Oolong tea is made from partially fermented leaves, giving it a distinctive mellow flavour. Chinese oolong is aged longer than Formosan oolong.
Tea leaves are rich in natural compounds called ‘catechins’, which are a family of flavonoids. Fermentation changes the nature of catechins, which alters the physiological effects of drinking tea.
In laboratory studies, the catechins found in oolong were shown to inhibit allergic reactions in rats, and were more potent than those found in green tea. In a clinical trial from Japan, people with allergic eczema that had not improved with medication were given oolong tea to drink for six months. While drinking the oolong tea, the majority of the study participants experienced a moderate-to-marked improvement in eczema within one month, with benefits first noticeable after one to two weeks.
The amount used was 10 g of tea leaves, equivalent to about 3 tsp of dried leaves or four tea bags, brewed in boiling water for five minutes. According to this Japanese study, the right amount of tea is four cups a day. Do not exceed this amount.
To ensure that your tea has a high level of catechins extracted from the leaves, brew the tea in boiling water for five minutes. If the tea is too strong, boil it in a small amount of water and dilute with plain hot water to the desired concentration.
To reduce the amount of caffeine in your tea, first steep the tea leaves in hot water for 30 seconds and discard the water. Then add fresh water and boil for five minutes. Most of the caffeine will be extracted in the initial waste water, while most of the catechins will remain in your tea.
Note: If you’re allergic to tea, please don’t drink this. You may have plain hot water, a common beverage in China and Japan.