Salicylates (suh-lis’-uh-lates)

What’s wrong with apple juice?

… or apples, or oranges, or tangerines, or grapes, or raisins, or tomatoes, or peaches, or nectarines, or cucumbers, or almonds, or peppers?

.Actually, nothing is wrong with these foods; they’re wholesome and nourishing. But for someone who is “salicylate sensitive” certain foods can be terrific troublemakers.

Salicylates occur naturally in some plants, and are also found in medicines. Aspirin is the best known salicylate, and aspirin-sensitivity is widely recognized; it can bring on a variety of symptoms from asthma attacks to hives to excessive bruising.

For many years medical journals have carried reports of adverse reactions to a variety of different substances including foods, food additives and medicines. Much of the information came from allergists who observed physical symptoms resulting from sensitivity to foods or aspirin, or food additives like dyes. Then research at the Kaiser-Permanente Medical Center in San Francisco demonstrated a link between these different substances – like cousins!

Even more surprising was the discovery that reactions can take the form of changes in behavior or the ability to focus. The same food or chemical which can bring about a case of hives in one patient can result in distractibility in another, and unprovoked anger in a third. In other words, substances that cause a reaction in one organ, can also affect another organ, our brain.

What is there in an apple that is similar to a food dye or an aspirin tablet? Too little is known about salicylate-sensitivity to provide a definitive answer, but we know that some plants produce chemicals to repel threats like insects and plant diseases, and that this chemical is similar to “acetylsalicylic acid” i.e., aspirin.

Research has been conducted to measure the salicylate content of various foods, but we don’t know for sure that it’s actually the salicylate that triggers a reaction. To further complicate the issue, a person can be extremely sensitive to one or two of the salicylate foods, and be able to tolerate the rest. Or they might be able to handle a food raw but not cooked, or the reverse.

Why would anyone be unable to tolerate something healthy like an apple, even an organic apple? It might be related to the changes in our food supply. We are missing many important nutrients when we rely on highly processed food. Unlike our ancestors, we don’t preserve our food through fermentation, so our diets are no longer rich in probiotics.

New research suggests that the key to a healthy body is good gut health, which means a steady supply of high quality probiotics (not processed yogurt loaded with additives). Antibiotics pose a major challenge to maintaining a healthy gut; they destroy beneficial bacteria. But even people who do not take antibiotic medicine ingest them when they eat factory-raised meats from animals that are treated with antibiotics. These drugs damage the animal’s metabolism, which fattens them up quickly, thus increasing profits.

Then consider the lack of nutrients in modern food and the thousands of synthetic chemicals in our food, air, water, cosmetics and house products, and it’s easy to see why our overworked bodies are having a hard time coping. This could help explain why some have found that those delicious fruits are not their friends.

The good news is that even if you are unable to handle some of the salicylate foods, there are many “non-salicylates” that are well-tolerated. What’s more, by temporarily avoiding the culprits, you might be able to add them back later on. The nonprofit Feingold Association shows how to determine if you have a salicylate-sensitivity, which foods are most likely to be well-tolerated, and the way that many people have been able to reduce or overcome their sensitivities. 

Happily, there are many vegetables and there is a good selection of fruits that are well tolerated by salicylate-sensitive people.

Salicylates can bring on many different symptoms

Most people don’t have a problem with salicylates, but for others, they are a big offender.

How can you help a bright child who is doing badly at school, whose grades are slipping, who drives his teacher to distraction with constant fidgeting and inability to focus?

Jerry was in fifth grade having problems academically and getting Ds in behavior. The approaches generally recommended had all been tried: testing, counseling, behavior modification, classroom modifications, medication; but nothing was working.

He had received counseling, and by the time he was ten he was seeing both a psychologist and a psychiatrist. Ritalin was tried and he had what his mother, Debra, describes as a “horrendous reaction”

In her search for answers, Debra had heard about the Feingold Program and decided to give it a try. When she told the psychiatrist this, he became very upset, urging her to forget about diet and try additional behavior-modifying drugs instead.

Despite a super-healthy diet, Jerry was having serious problems.

The family’s diet was already remarkably pure. Debra cooks virtually everything from scratch and they use either homegrown or organic foods for most of their diet. It’s easy to wonder what on Earth the Feingold Program could offer. “Raisins and grapes.” What Debra learned was that these were the two foods that were setting Jerry off. He had them often, and they were responsible for both the behavior and learning problems he had experienced for so long.

The family began the Program during the second half of fifth grade, and in the last grading period Jerry’s grades were all As and Bs, with a B in behavior! His academic success continued and Jerry is now doing well in junior high school. He stays away from raisins, grapes and the additives, but tolerates the other salicylates.

One of the biggest benefits for this bright young man was his success with karate. Jerry loved it, but was unable to advance to black belt status. In order to achieve this high level, the students must pass a test that requires them to sit on their knees, virtually motionless, while each student performs. The testing period lasts for approximately four hours.

Not only did Jerry successfully complete this test and receive his black belt, but his parents have it on videotape. Friends who knew Jerry “before Feingold” didn’t believe it until they saw the tape!

Reprinted from Why Can’t My Child Behave?

Read about the Feingold Diet here.