Updated: Mar 20, 2019
It can be extremely frustrating when symptom flare-ups occur sporadically or unexpectedly. Have you wondered why pain and inflammation occurs only sometimes after eating a certain food? Have you experienced flare-ups without being able to identify the cause? Strategic trigger elimination helps the understanding of your body's relationship with factors like food, stress, and weather, so that you can more effectively avoid flare-ups. This is an overview of food trigger avoidance in the prevention of inflammation.
Keeping the Trigger Load Low
The trigger load is the the amount of factors which, when too high, cause a painful occurrence, or a flare-up. Triggers can be stress or emotional factors, environmental irritants, or foods that induce an inflammatory response in the body. While a few triggers may not induce inflammation, a higher number of (or higher severity of) triggers will result in an inflammatory response. Keeping the trigger load low and the pain threshold high will prevent flare-ups.
Is a Trigger the Same as an Allergy?
No. Not all inflammatory responses are allergic. Allergic responses involve a specific immune reaction and genetic predisposition. Because triggers and allergies both contribute to the trigger load, they should often be treated with the same caution and be completely avoided.
What are the Most Common Food Triggers?
Every person has a unique set of triggers. The most common triggers are sugar, gluten, red meat, seafood, caffeine, dairy, nightshades (white potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant, etc.), trans fats (industrialized oils used in fried foods, cookies, candy, blended vegetable oils, cooking margarines), monosodium glutamate, and aspartame. I have also found in my personal practice that nuts, seeds, and alcohol are major triggers for some.
What Happens when the Trigger Load is Too High?
When the trigger load is high, inflammation occurs. Although the experience of inflammation is different for everyone, it can appear as swelling, redness, itching, burning, headaches, backaches, bouts of fatigue, general discomfort, diarrhea, constipation, or worsening symptoms of an existing condition. Examples of inflammatory conditions are rheumatoid and psoriatic arthritis, chronic back pain, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, inflammatory bowel disease, eczema, herpes, joint pain, and headaches.
How to Eliminate Food Triggers
The best way to do an elimination diet is to cut out every suspected trigger for at least 30 days. Once the triggers are completely out of your system, and you are no longer conditioned to tolerating them, it is time to reintroduce each ingredient, one at a time, to see if it is triggering inflammation for you.
1. Create a Plan. Make a list of likely triggers. Decide if cutting them out completely is manageable for you. Some may have more success cutting out only one or two food items every 30 days. For example, cutting out gluten in the first 30 days, cutting out gluten and caffeine in the second 30 days, cutting out gluten, caffeine, and sugary foods in the next 30 days, and so on.
2. Prepare for Success. Eliminating triggers is not about depriving yourself of food. It's about nourishing yourself with healthy ingredients instead of harmful ones. Stock your kitchen with staple ingredients that are healthy and non-inflammatory. Include items that are easy to cook in a pinch, like canned soups made with natural ingredients. It is recommended to buy whole grains in bulk, and plan for weekly farmers market or grocery store visits for fresh veggies and produce. When eating out, inquire about what you are ordering if you are not sure that it follows your nutrition plan.
3. The Elimination Trial. Avoid eating suspected triggers completely for at least 30 days. Your body needs this time to detox, and to remove the ingredient completely from your system. Your body constantly works to maintain bacterial and biochemical balance. When eating habits change, the body may need time to adjust. Expect changes if you are eliminating something you eat every day (such as headaches and fatigue) especially during the first two weeks. You can also expect positive changes (more energy, more clarity, less bloating). Eliminating foods that you are used to eating is not an easy task. Take it day-by-day and celebrate the small successes. Being more mindful of what you eat will help you be more connected to your body and intuitively feed yourself what your body actually needs. Follow a recipe blog or experiment with new ingredients and health food stores to keep it interesting.
4. Reintroduction. After the elimination trial, you should have minimal symptom flare-ups. If you are still experiencing the same number of flare-ups, then there is still a major trigger, or multiple triggers, that need to be eliminated. If no flare-ups occur, then reintroduction is appropriate. If minimal to moderate flare-ups occur, reintroduction is appropriate, but continuing an elimination trial with new possible triggers is necessary.
To reintroduce a possible trigger after 30 days of elimination, include the food item in your diet every day for one week. This is necessary because food triggers have a day or two delayed inflammatory effect. Reintroducing the suspected trigger every day for one week also eliminates other potential variables interfering with results. If an inflammatory response occurs during the week of reintroduction, that food can be categorized as a definite trigger and there is no need to continue the reintroduction.
Following the Strategic Food Trigger Elimination Plan is the best way to take back control of inflammatory symptoms. In many cases, beginning an elimination plan is the first step in a major recovery breakthrough.
So when you're ready, grab a pen and paper, and make a list of foods that are possibly triggering your flare-ups. All you have to lose is pain.