- Nutrition -

Coping With Salicylate Sensitivity

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wine glass and coffee cups

If you’re eating healthy and still suffering from health issues, salicylic acid may be to blame.

Are you eating veggies, legumes, and other healthy whole foods, yet still suffering from baffling health issues? The salicylic acid in the plants may be to blame.

A phenolic chemical that protects plants from bacteria, disease, and insects, salicylic acid is a common but often-overlooked sensitivity trigger. Salicylates, which include tannins, are found in certain beans, and nuts, berries, grapes, avocados, broccoli, spices, and many other foods. They are also a key ingredient in aspirin. Symptoms can range widely; they include asthma-like breathing issues, digestive woes, and migraines.

“Salicylate sensitivity and tannin intolerance are not allergies, because they rarely involve the immune system,” explains integrative physician Leo Galland, MD, author of The Allergy Solution. “They probably result from the ability of salicylates and tannins to inhibit enzymes.”

The most common culprit for salicylate sensitivity is red-wine tannin, followed by the tannin in black tea and coffee, raisins, and nuts, he says. Artificial salicylates are used as a preservative in some fruit juices, chocolate, processed meats, beer, and wine.

Just over 1 percent of people suffer salicylate sensitivity, Galland says, and there are no simple, reliable tests for identifying it. He recommends an elimination diet to track down offending foods — but he also warns that this is an inexact test because foods contain multiple ingredients, any of which could be the culprit.

He also offers these tips for pinpointing and managing a salicylate sensitivity:

  • Keep a food journal noting which foods containing salicylates and tannins affect you, and steer clear.
  • Find low-salicylate alternatives. White wine is much lower in tannins than red wine; white beans have less salicylic acid than red or black beans; and cashews have lower levels than almonds. For a handy reference of food salicylate levels, see Salicylate Intolerance: The Complete Guide, by Christine Sexton, MPH, RD, at bit.ly/2Kfk8yi.
  • Enhance your digestive and detox capabilities. Salicylates and tannins inhibit our digestive enzymes and block absorption and detoxification, Galland explains. If your sensitivity is not extreme, he suggests eating foods containing salicylates and tannins separately from other foods to aid your digestion. 

He also notes that you can build your overall “ability to detoxify by eating a nutritionally dense diet, maintaining a nontoxic home environment, and eating foods that enhance detoxifying ability, like broccoli sprouts.”

is an Experience Life deputy editor.

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