By Dr. Chad Larson
When it comes to your health and the holidays, family gatherings and home-cooked feasts can take a toll on more than just your waistline. Factors such as stress and indulgent treats, exacerbated by cold and flu season, can strain your immune system at a time when it’s more important than ever for it to be in peak condition.
While we may not have perfect control over invisible threats in our environments, such as viruses and bacteria, some immune insults are more easily managed than others. Along with stress management, getting good sleep (and enough of it), keeping up personal relationships, and exercising, one critical way to support your immune system is through a thoughtful diet.
Whether you’re planning your own holiday feast menu or taking a seat at your loved one’s table, the meal choices you make matter. Our immune systems can be dysregulated by metabolic issues such as diabetes that stem from diets high in fats, sugars, and processed foods — all popular staples on many holiday menus. And for those with food sensitivities, the wrong choice can cause acute and chronic imbalances that make you more vulnerable to pathogens.
The foods we choose have a very direct effect on our immune systems and our ability to fight off illness. This holiday season, take control of your health and plan a delicious feast while keeping food sensitivities top of mind. Consider these common holiday treats and meals that might leave you feeling less than 100 percent:
1. Sugar intake: Studies show that foods with a higher sugar content can suppress your immune system for around five hours after a single exposure. Just 75 grams of sugar can hinder the immune system by weakening white blood cells, which your body needs to fight off infection. During a season where sweet treats are always within reach, sugar consumption can add up quickly. For context, there are approximately 32 grams of sugar in a slice of pumpkin pie, 25 grams in a slice of jellied cranberry sauce and 39 grams in a can of Coca-Cola. If you can’t shake your sweet tooth, remember that moderation is key and aim for roughly 25 grams recommended by the World Health Organization.
2. Gluten- and wheat-containing foods: Your holiday spread is likely packed with gluten and wheat, from stuffing and rolls to pie crust and even bread crumbs on a green bean casserole. While the well-known celiac disease impacts around 1 percent of the American population, six times as many suffer from non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) — millions of people experience inflammation, the immune system’s first line of defense. Research conducted at Columbia University Medical Center in 2016 also confirmed that wheat exposure for individuals with gluten sensitivity triggers a systemic immune reaction and accompanying intestinal cell damage (a condition referred to as non-celiac wheat sensitivity).
3. Ultra-processed foods: If you are planning to prepare any meal that is grain-based, it is most likely ultra-processed. Examples are breads, cookies, pastries, cakes, pies, chips, and muffins. Ultra-processed food consumption has been associated with inflammation, oxidation, and immune system dysfunction. Ultra-processed foods have also been shown to increase the risk of obesity, hypertension, and dyslipidemia -- all major causes of chronic disease today. Unfortunately, ultra-processed foods do not represent an occasional indulgence or treat, they have become a staple, making up almost 70% of the diet.
4. Dairy: You may want to hold the butter or milk in your mashed potatoes or enjoy pumpkin pie without whipped cream. It’s common for aging adults to experience a decrease in lactase production — meaning it’s difficult to break down lactose in the dishes we’ve come to love in our Thanksgiving & Christmas dinners. According to the National Institutes of Health, approximately 65 percent of the global population has a reduced ability to digest lactose after infancy. This can lead to the weakening of contractions in the large intestine or bacterial overgrowth, among other symptoms. Immune reactivity to dairy proteins can also be a problem.
Ultimately, don’t restrict yourself unnecessarily from your favorite holiday foods, but do enter the holiday season being aware of your options. Keep a record of any potential reactions throughout the year and plan your menu accordingly.
But what if you’re unaware of a food sensitivity? The process of identifying a reaction and pinpointing the cause can be a long and taxing journey of eliminating foods and slowly reintroducing them one at a time. Because there can be significant cross-reactions between the food we eat, it’s often difficult to determine the exact cause of digestive discomfort.
Food sensitivities are increasingly common. But rather than self-diagnosing perceived symptoms, current lab technology allows us to test for food sensitivities and take the guesswork out of treatment.
Dr. Chad Larson, NMD, DC, CCN, CSCS, Advisor and Consultant on Clinical Consulting Team for Cyrex Laboratories. Dr. Larson holds a Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine degree from Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine and a Doctor of Chiropractic degree from Southern California University of Health Sciences. He is a Certified Clinical Nutritionist and a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist. He particularly pursues advanced developments in the fields of endocrinology, orthopedics, sports medicine, and environmentally-induced chronic disease.
The Array 10 test from Cyrex Laboratories can detect autoimmune reactivity to 180 food antigens in cooked, raw, modified or processed forms of common products like dairy, eggs, and grains.
By identifying dietary-related triggers early, you can work with your doctor to minimize reactive foods ahead of your holiday dinner. With diet protocol in place — one that takes all food sensitivities into consideration, you’ll be ready to spread holiday cheer with your immune system in tip-top shape.