We’ll give you the facts and what you can do about it
I know what you’re probably thinking. This is just another medical hype or fad going around to convince health conscious people to buy more health supplements. We kid you not. Lactose intolerance, gluten sensitivity, tyramine intolerance, and several others are just examples of food sensitivities. Perhaps the most neglected, frowned upon, and overlooked food intolerance is salicylate sensitivity. Some don’t even acknowledge its existence. We beg to disagree. But first, let’s back up a little here. Let’s clarify some definitions of terms we’ll be using in this article, so we’ll be able to understand each other better.
Food sensitivity. A toxic response to any food you ate that doesn’t involve angering (activating) your immune system is called a food sensitivity. Some authorities on the matter use the term food intolerance. Strictly speaking, a food intolerance is your body’s inability to tolerate a certain amount of food or food component. As a result, your body reacts to it without the involvement of your immune system. The two terms mean the same thing and will be used interchangeably. A food sensitivity usually happens over several days (or sometimes longer) before symptoms show up. The symptoms of a food sensitivity are almost always NON-life-threatening. We’ll list the symptoms later.
Salicylate sensitivity is defined as a toxic response to a certain level of salicylate in your body. It also means that your body is unable to tolerate a particular amount of salicylate and reacts to it without involving your immune system. Each person’s capability to tolerate a certain amount of salicylate is different from another person. We’ll be using the term salicylate sensitivity in this article to refer to both terms.
Food allergy. On the other hand, a food allergy happens within several minutes to hours of eating something you’re allergic to. It involves angering (activating) your immune system. The symptoms can be life-threatening if not treated promptly. An allergy to salicylates means your body’s immune system is quick to respond to anything that contains salicylates. Even small amounts can trigger a fatal allergic reaction.
What are salicylates?
You’re probably aware that salicylates are the active ingredients of a certain over-the-counter pain reliever and fever medication called aspirin. It’s the main component responsible for the pharmacologic action of aspirin. But, did you know that salicylates are found in a lot of foods?
Salicylates are naturally occurring compounds produced by plants. They use salicylates to ward off opportunistic insects that want to make a meal out of them. They also protect plants from diseases (plants get sick too) and act as preservatives. As you may well know, they’re also found synthetically in perfumes and medicines. Unfortunately, a select number of people are unable to eat regular amounts of salicylates without experiencing uncomfortable symptoms. These people are salicylate sensitive (or salicylate intolerant).
As you can see, the major symptoms of salicylate sensitivity are nonspecific, and mostly centred around your gastrointestinal tract. In contrast, the symptoms you may experience from an allergic reaction to salicylates extend way beyond your gastrointestinal tract and are much more severe.
The most plausible and accepted explanation as to why some people develop salicylate sensitivity or intolerance is because they have insufficient amounts of a certain enzyme used to metabolise salicylates. As a consequence, salicylates accumulate in their system and cause problems. Another possible explanation worth mentioning is the presence of food additives in your suspected food (causing salicylate or food sensitivity). The food additive can be the real thing you’re sensitive or intolerant to and not the salicylates. Imagine the numerous and different food additives used nowadays. Food additives include flavour enhancers, artificial colourings, emulsifiers, preservatives, sweeteners, and artificial flavourings.
Which foods contain high levels of salicylates?
Below is a table showing a list of foods with very high levels of salicylates.
**Please note: these are only the foods that are very high in salicylates, there are others which still contain reasonable amounts that you may need to be aware of. Also keep in mind that while many spices and herbs are very high in salicylates, they are only used in very small doses so may not be a significant dietary source of salicylates alone.
A regular diet contains anywhere between 10 to 200 mg per day of natural salicylates. A regular strength aspirin tablet contains 300 to 325 mg of acetylsalicylic acid.
Herbs and spices contain the highest levels of salicylates in milligrams per gram. Curry powder contains more than 200 mg of salicylates per 100 mg of powder (though 100 mg is more than you would eat in one go!). The humble raspberry contains around 4 mg of salicylates per 100 mg but is still regarded as containing high levels.
Dairy products, fish, and meat contain very small or negligible amounts of salicylates.
Low levels of salicylates are also found in other things besides food like cosmetics, cleaning products, detergents, and fragrances.
The Secret Relationship of a Salicylate Sensitivity with SIBO
Are you familiar with SIBO? SIBO stands for small intestinal bacterial overgrowth. It’s a medical condition where huge numbers of bacteria are present in your small intestine. Under normal circumstances, your small intestine (compared to your large intestine) doesn’t provide abode to large numbers of bacteria. Too many bacteria in your small intestine can rob you of nutrients that you’re trying to absorb there. You can become malnourished in the process. Some of the metabolic products of the bacteria can also damage the lining of your small intestine.
Some of the causes of SIBO include surgery of your small intestine, irritable bowel syndrome, and diseases that mess with the movement of your small intestine. SIBO also has a secret relationship with salicylate sensitivity. According to the observations and studies of Dr Donna Beck, a well-known naturopathic doctor, SIBO increases your chances of developing salicylate sensitivity. Everyday stress that we encounter forces our bodies to function in an acidic environment internally. To counteract act this effect, you need to alkalinise using diet, Buteyko breathing, and enzymes. Unfortunately, if you have SIBO, you will not be able to absorb all the dietary nutrients and enzymes. You need them to neutralise or buffer the acidic environment. This severely compromises your health. Furthermore, salicylate sensitivity thrives very well in an acidic environment. Because of this relationship between salicylate sensitivity and SIBO, treatment of SIBO becomes more complicated.
Diagnosis of a Salicylate Sensitivity
Diagnosing a salicylate sensitivity is difficult. The symptoms overlap with the symptoms of other food sensitivities. Plus, there’s no established skin testing method or laboratory test to confirm its diagnosis unlike other allergies out there. Medical experts use a method called a provocative challenge to confirm its diagnosis. It’s done by promoting a controlled response or reaction as a way to confirm the diagnosis. What happens in a provocative challenge is that you’re given greater amounts of salicylates, gradually increasing the levels in your system until symptoms of salicylate sensitivity appear. Don’t attempt to accomplish this on your own.
Your doctor can also rule out the possibility that you have a food allergy instead of a food sensitivity. Surprisingly, a food allergy is easier to identify compared to a food sensitivity. Skin prick and blood tests that measure certain proteins (immunoglobulin E antibodies) are done to rule out an allergy. Remember, a food allergy is more harmful than a food sensitivity if not recognised and addressed promptly.
Who is most prone to developing a salicylate sensitivity?
Adults are more affected by a salicylate sensitivity than children.
People with asthma, allergic rhinitis, or atopic dermatitis are more likely to develop a salicylate sensitivity. Salicylates are also well-known triggers for an asthma attack in certain asthmatics.
People with low levels of an enzyme called phenol-sulphur-transferase (PST) are more prone to develop a salicylate sensitivity. PST is an enzyme neededs for the metabolism of salicylates. As if their health problems weren’t enough, children who have autism were found to have low levels of this enzyme and hence, are more prone to developing a salicylate sensitivity.
You can’t go on a zero-salicylate diet. It’s almost impossible, and you may develop nutritional deficiencies of other essential nutrients. It’s a lot more difficult than a gluten-free diet. What you can do is to eliminate foods from your diet that contain large amounts of salicylates in them for four weeks. Observe if your symptoms improve. But before you start doing this, it’s recommended that you seek help from your healthcare practitioner.
Hmm, are naturally occurring salicylates good for anything?
We thought you’d never ask. Of course, they’re good for something. Not just for plant health, but for your health too. Research studies have validated the potential role of dietary salicylates in the prevention of colon cancer. A few studies have also documented its role in the prevention of cardiovascular diseases. There you go.
Detoxification and Metabolism of Salicylates
One method of preventing the symptoms of a salicylate sensitivity is to ensure that you don’t accumulate sufficient amounts of salicylates in your system to cause problems. Before we talk about this, let’s first talk about how your body deals with salicylates. Metabolism or breakdown of salicylates is handled by two organs: your liver and your kidneys.
Liver. The first step in salicylate metabolism is hepatic conjugation. Conjugation simply means to make it more water-soluble. Conjugation happens by either the glucuronic acid or glycine pathways. Between the two pathways, glycine conjugation is the predominant one. When glycine conjugation becomes saturated (run out of available enzymes), the glucuronic acid pathway takes over. In some people with salicylate sensitivity, something is missing in one or both pathways making it difficult for the body to tolerate increasing levels of salicylates and its metabolites.
Conjugation with glucuronide forms salicyluric acid and salicyl phenolic glucuronide. PST breaks down salicyl phenolic glucuronide. It’s surprising to note that this enzyme was found to be low among children with autism. This may explain in part why children with autism usually develop salicylate sensitivity. Conjugation with glycine also yields salicyluric acid. Salicyluric acid is readily excreted through your kidneys.
Kidneys. Your kidneys are responsible for getting rid of unchanged salicylates. This accounts for 10% of the total elimination. The other 90% is a burden your liver has to deal with.
It’s pretty obvious that you have to take care of these two organs to be able to eliminate excess or unwanted salicylates in your system. Hey, even if you don’t have a salicylate sensitivity, you still have to take care of these two organs!
What You Can Do If You Have A Salicylate Sensitivity
Salicylate restricted diet. This form of diet should not be done without the knowledge of your healthcare practitioner. Remember, restricted is the term used and not zero salicylate. Also, never diagnose yourself as having a salicylate sensitivity. Lastly, ask your doctor about desensitisation therapy.
Write down the food you eat in a food diary. If you hate writing them down, try one of several applications available in Google Play or the Apple Store. Most of them allow you to simply take pictures of the food you eat and save them effortlessly. Show them to your healthcare practitioner so they might be able to identify what it is you’re sensitive to.
Epsom salts. Epsom salt is basically magnesium sulphate. Do you remember the enzyme PST used to break down salicylates? It works very well in eliminating salicylates if there are a lot of sulphates in your system. The best way to increase the amount of sulphates in your body is with Epsom salt through baths, sprays, and homemade lotions.
Glutathione. Salicylate metabolism is notorious for depleting your supply of the antioxidant glutathione. Exactly how this happens, remains unclear to this day. But it doesn’t mean you can’t do anything about it. Glutathione helps out with salicylate metabolism by hunting down harmful by-products of the breakdown process. It’s a potent antioxidant found in every cell of your body. Glutathione supplementation increases your body’s capacity to metabolise salicylates.
Calcium-D-Glucarate inhibits an enzyme in your liver (B-glucuronidase) which blocks the elimination of salicylates. It favours glucuronidation, making the salicylate more water-soluble and easily excreted by your kidneys.
Sulforaphane glucosinolate (SGS). SGS is also known as glucoraphanin. According to many research studies, it’s the most potent naturally-occurring activator of a group of enzymes responsible for glucuronidation (phase II detoxification in your liver to be precise). The more activated enzymes you have, the greater is your body’s capacity to eliminate excess salicylates. Broccoli sprouts is a rich source of this amazing compound. I know. Broccoli does contain high levels of salicylates. Don’t worry, SGS is available in supplement form without salicylates. SGS is also the subject of intense research regarding cancer treatment and prevention of cardiovascular diseases.
Spirulina. It’s already well-established that very high doses of salicylates (250–300 mg/kg) in your system can cause tinnitus. Tinnitus is a condition resulting in a sensation of ringing in your ears. It can be very bothersome and can interfere with your work. Spirulina contains an active component called C-phycocyanin that may significantly reduce tinnitus secondary to high doses of salicylates. Very high doses of salicylates are usually due to chronic intake of aspirin and not from the diet.
Barley grass. Barley grass supplies a lot of superoxide dismutase (antioxidant enzyme) which eliminates oxygen free radicals produced from detoxification processes (elimination of salicylates) and production of energy. Theoretically, the breakdown of salicylates and other substances in your liver yields huge amounts of superoxide radicals that can be neutralised by superoxide dismutase found in barley grass. Barley grass is also loaded with vitamins, minerals and other enzymes.
Amylase. The enzyme amylase (as a supplement) has no direct effect on eliminating salicylates from your body. But salicylates are compounds which also have a phenol group in their chemical structure. Phenolic compounds have the potential to exert a negative effect (inhibitory) on your body’s own amylase activities in experimental studies. They prevent amylase from successfully digesting carbohydrates. Partially digested food can cause a lot of problems like additional food sensitivities. Theoretically, you can help your body overcome this negative effect of salicylates by supplementing with amylase, giving you an extra army of amylase enzymes to efficiently digest carbohydrates.
Activated charcoal. Aside from saving you from drug overdose and poisoning (activated charcoal is used in the emergency room of hospitals), activated charcoal can also aid in the elimination of excess salicylates in your system. It’s a well-known antidote for people who have toxicity from salicylate medication (aspirin).
A person with salicylate sensitivity, on the other hand, may benefit from activated charcoal by successfully preventing the digestive system from absorbing more salicylates for a limited period of time. Activated charcoal basically traps salicylates while in your digestive tract. As a consequence, your gastrointestinal tract is unable to absorb salicylates and they exit your body together with the activated charcoal. Please don’t get the charcoal from your barbecue grill. That’s not the one we’re talking about here. Ask a qualified healthcare practitioner before taking activated charcoal for your salicylate sensitivity.
The Bottom Line
Salicylate sensitivity isn’t some medical hype or fad. It’s been causing a lot of problems for certain people for some time now. Get to know the symptoms and consult your healthcare practitioner if you suspect you have it. Don’t self-diagnose. You can try these practical tips we have outlined above to support your health and manage your symptoms. The worst thing you can do when it comes to a salicylate sensitivity is to ignore it.