Using a Low Salicylate Diet to Improve Health & Performance
Do you suffer from ADD, ADHD, eczema, asthma or other allergy-related symptoms? If so, have you ever thought about adjusting your diet to see if you could lessen the severity of your symptoms or possibly even decrease the dosage of your medication?
If I’ve piqued your interest, keep reading.
While there are a handful of different elimination diets that have been proven effective for treating the conditions mentioned above, there is one approach in particular that stands out: A low salicylate diet with emphasis on the removal of all food additives and chemicals.
A low salicylate diet can be extremely beneficial when it comes to alleviating chronic health symptoms, however, the approach is quite restrictive and it is often best implemented after other less confining methods have been utilized. Check out my previous article on histamine intolerance and elimination diet strategies first before considering a low salicylate diet. If you are interested in starting an elimination diet, we have a free three-part video series that you can watch to help you on your journey.
In today’s article, we are going to review symptoms of salicylate intolerance, the best foods to eat on a low salicylate diet, and we will also review the most common food chemicals and additives known for triggering reactions similar to salicylate intolerance.
What Are Salicylates?
Salicylates are naturally occurring chemicals found in plant-based foods including fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds, spices, and herbs. These chemicals can be compared to a natural insecticide if you will, helping to protect the plant from predators in its natural environment.
As you might have guessed, just about every single one of us consumes some form of salicylate on a daily, sometimes even an hourly basis. What you may not already know is that salicylates can be found in everything from beauty/face products to toothpaste and even over the counter pain medications.
Why Are Some of us Intolerant to Salicylates?
When an individual is no longer able to tolerate salicylates, this comes as a result of a malfunction in the enzyme found in the pathway that is responsible for initiating the inflammatory process in our body. Essentially, the lack of enzyme creates a “roadblock” in the chemical pathway and our body is unable to process salicylates.
Sounds a little strange, I know.
To make a long story short, when a salicylate-sensitive individual is exposed to the naturally occurring chemical, there is a release of mast cells which trigger a response similar to that of an allergic reaction. It is important to note that histamine is typically released in this process.
Fun fact: Sometimes individuals will not react to salicylates found in food but will feel awful after taking a medication that contains salicylates. This is because there is typically a significantly higher concentration of salicylates in pain medication.
High concentrations of salicylates can help reduce pain by reducing the number of prostaglandins in our body. Prostaglandins are lipid-like, hormonal compounds found in almost every tissue of our body. They are released when our body experiences an injury and can help clot when there is vessel damage as well as contract muscle or blood vessel tissue when there is damage to reduce blood loss.
Keep in mind that your healthcare practitioner may be referring to this condition as a “salicylate allergy”. While it is not a true IgE allergy, this is a term most individuals can understand hence why it is used so often. The correct terminology is salicylate intolerance.
What are the Most Common Symptoms of Salicylate Intolerance?
While the immune system’s reaction can differ greatly from person to person, the most common symptoms of salicylate intolerance include the following :
- Asthma or other chronic bronchial conditions
- Rhinitis and or nasal polyps
- Persistent gastrointestinal issues
- Some individuals may experience swelling of the limbs and eyelids, headaches, a ringing of the ears and even bed wetting
Now, you might be thinking, ok these symptoms sound like they could fall under a lot of other conditions. In fact, it even seems to overlap greatly with the histamine intolerance.
You are absolutely correct in thinking that.
The key is to try to review the situation from a much larger lens. If you experience several or more of the symptoms above then it’s time to ask yourself the following questions. Do you feel much worse and do your symptoms seem to be exacerbated when you consume a large number of high salicylate foods in one sitting? (See food list below) Do you tend to react after taking pain medications such as aspirin? These are major clues that salicylates could be the culprit.
In other words, I’m saying that you should be trying your best to survive off lint and ice cubes.
Best Foods to Eat on a Low Salicylate Diet
Instead of continually placing focus on what you can’t eat, let’s talk about what you CAN eat.
The best low salicylate foods include but are not limited to:
- Poppy seeds
- Apples (best if peeled)
Needless to say, the low salicylate approach can be extremely challenging to implement correctly, especially for young athletes. However, when the individual is able to stay consistent with the diet for ~3 weeks, great progress can be made.
Pro Tip: If you have worked diligently with your healthcare provider to remove high salicylate foods and you still do not feel very well, there is a strong chance that you may be reacting to other food chemicals. In certain situations, an individual may not experience true symptom relief until they remove high salicylate foods in addition to other common chemicals such as sulfites, glutamic acid, and benzoates. (See below for more information on additional chemicals).
Is this dietary approach balanced? No, of course not. Would I recommend the removal of all high salicylate foods for life? No way! Unfortunately, a low salicylate diet is not very nutrient dense.
Instead, I want you to think of this as a way to use food as medicine.
We are working on getting to know your specific immune system on a deeper level. We are hustling to get to the root of your health issues and annoyances instead of masking them with more and more medications and surgeries. (Fun little titbit for you–I once worked with a woman who had terrible allergies and went to the doctor every few months to have her nasal polys surgically removed. Long story short, we worked together to create a low salicylate diet for her and within 10 days of implementation, her symptoms reduced dramatically and she no longer had nasal polyps. Its been years now since she has had to have a polyp surgically removed.)
While a low salicylate diet is not exactly a fun approach to healing, it is safer and less invasive than most conventional methods of therapy for the symptoms listed above. Best of all? It is not a quick fix. As you might have realized by now, we at FWDfuel don’t take shortcuts!
Speaking of avoiding shortcuts….
If you do find that you feel significantly better on a low salicylate diet and you plan to continue the plan for longer than 3 weeks, it is best to begin a professional grade low salicylate multivitamin. Why? Trust me, the absolute last thing you want to deal with while following such a restrictive dietary regimen is the development of nutrient deficiencies. I recommend professional grade multivitamins as most of your standard multivitamins from the local grocery store are filled with synthetic ingredients dyes, artificial flavors etc. that can trigger an immune reaction.
My favorite professional-grade low-salicylate multivitamin currently on the market is Thorne Research Basic Nutrients (This links to Amazon). While we love Amazon and often recommend purchasing through them, this multi can be purchased at nearly half the price through our favorite shop specifically for high-quality supplements, Wellevate. Once you login to Wellevate, you will want to search specifically for the “Thorne Basic Nutrients 2/day”. There are other variations of this multi but the 2/day is our preference.
(Usual disclaimer: FWDfuel Sports Nutrition is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program and the Emerson Wellevate Associates program. These programs are designed to provide a means for bloggers and qualified health professionals to earn advertising fees by linking to their sites. Each company offers a small commission on products sold through their affiliate links. The product prices are no different when found by clicking on our links vs. searching on your own. Each purchase supports our cause and helps us keep this website up and running at no additional cost to you.)
Wait, you Mentioned Additional Food Chemicals? What Exactly Does that Mean?
Sulfites are preservatives added to food for freshness. Many individuals tend to recognize when they have a sulfite intolerance. Have you ever heard someone say “Man I get such terrible headaches after I drink wine!”? That’s typically a result of a sulfite intolerance. Sometimes hives, nausea, and asthmatic symptoms will occur in someone with sulfite intolerance.
Commonly consumed high sulfate foods include alcohol, soft drinks, fruit juice, vinegar, lunch meat, gelatin, crustaceans, packaged and processed foods such as jellies, pickles, cherries, sauerkraut, fruit spread, and commercial bread, biscuits, and desserts.
It’s important to note that sulfite intolerance is not interchangeable with sulfur intolerance although sometimes they can be related. A sulfer intolerance is related to a genetic mutation. This mutation can rear it’s ugly head after one experiences chronic health conditions such as intestinal permeability or Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO). The most common symptoms of sulfur intolerance include headaches, gas, bloating, GI pain, swelling, with the most classic symptom being the smell of ammonia on the breath or stool.
Benzoates are food chemicals that are formed when two salicylate molecules are combined. They can occur naturally or synthetically. Since benzoates have such a similar molecular structure to salicylates, the immune system response is often identical.
From a natural standpoint, benzoates can be found in spinach, honey, tomatoes, avocado, soybeans, papaya, cranberries, all stone fruit, pumpkin, black and green teas, berries, chocolate and pretty much all spices. Oddly enough, benzoate is highly concentrated in cinnamon.
Go ahead and flip over the label on a few processed foods in your kitchen cabinet. You will likely find sodium benzoate as one of the preservatives listed.
Glutamic Acid is an amino acid that occurs naturally in aged foods. It can also be created synthetically, most commonly in the form of MSG (monosodium glutamate). Many individuals report a sensitivity to MSG. MSG is the chemical that gives many foods that irresistible umami flavor, often found in processed and agreed foods, Asian food etc. Symptoms are similar to salicylate intolerance.
Last but not least, I’d like to briefly touch upon the issue of nickel allergy. I will only touch upon this condition as it is something I have only seen a few times in my career. However, it is a very real issue that I believe is worth mentioning.
Nickel is naturally occurring in our soil, and therefore can be found in a number of plant foods. The tricky part though is that the nickel concentration can differ from region to region and there is really no way to know for sure where it grows in abundance. In addition to plants, nickel can be found in the canning process and also from our cookware.
The most common symptoms of nickel allergy are contact dermatitis and eczema, mainly on the hands. Interestingly, my nickel reactive clients in the past first noticed the allergy when they wore metal based jewelry. The jewelry piece repeatedly left behind a bright red rash and or dark discoloration in the spot where the piece was worn.
Are You Overwhelmed Yet?
Whether you to the top dietary allergens or food chemicals, there are numerous variations of an elimination diet that you can follow.
Allow me to streamline this for you.
First and foremost, be sure to work with a qualified healthcare practitioner who is well versed in food sensitivities and intolerance. Otherwise, you may find this to be a much more stressful and drawn out process than it needs to be. If you are unable to find someone properly trained in elimination diets, find a practitioner who is open to the process and use the steps below to guide you.
The first step is, to begin with the removal of the top food allergens: wheat, dairy, corn, egg, and soy. If this does not provide relief, include the removal of all 8 top allergens which adds: shellfish, peanuts, and pork.
Still not where you’d like to be? Reintroduce these foods and re-evaluate your symptoms. It’s time to start thinking about food chemicals.
What are you noticing? Significant stress? Infection? Major hormonal fluctuations? Maybe even a side of skin flushing, headaches and allergies? In that case, I would strongly consider implementing a histamine elimination diet. Check out my previous article on histamine intolerance for more information.
If those symptoms do not resonate with you, what about chronic allergies? Eczema? Rhinitis and nasal polyps? Persistent lung/bronchial issues? Yes? As mentioned earlier in this article, it would be in your best interest to initiate a low salicylate diet.
Last but not least, if you still do not feel that you have made the progress you desire, keep a food and symptom journal in order to determine whether it makes sense to dive deeper into specific food chemicals such as benzoates, sulfites, and glutamic acid.
Can I Ever Eat High Salicylate or Chemical Ridden Foods Again?
The answer to this question is yes, for the most part. If you do find that you have a salicylate or chemical intolerance, it is important to reintroduce each food one at a time as you will find that some foods you still react to while others you no longer have problems. You will also likely find that your tolerance level will depend on specific portions.
When reintroducing a high salicylate or chemical rich food, pay attention to how and when you react (if at all). If you react on day one of that specific food’s reintroduction, you have a low salicylate tolerance. However, if you find that you do not react at all, or do not notice a reaction until closer to the end of that reintroduction period (~5 days later) you have a higher tolerance for that specific high salicylate food. Most individuals will be able to tolerate a small handful of high salicylate foods in small amounts.
In summary, implementing a low salicylate and or a low chemical nutrition regimen can be the most effective way to rid your body of chronic immune related symptoms. While it may not be the easiest or most thrilling approach, it is often the safest and most effective method when it comes to improving long-term health, especially when medications, surgeries and other conventional medicine tools have only provided short-term relief. Also, if you’re feeling better but still have some symptoms you’re looking to clear up, check out our Ultimate Elimination Meal Plan Guide which may be another helpful step in your journey.
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Have you ever tried a low salicylate diet? Have you ever focused on removing chemical additives from your diet in order to experience symptom relief? Were you successful? Share your thoughts below. We’d love to hear from you!
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why suggest eating papaya in the beginning and then list is a high in benzoates later….. which is it?
I have an anaphylaxis reaction to asprin but didn’t know there were so many foods containing salicylates. I’ve been exhibiting autoimmune symptoms for past 7 years with painful joints & swelling in hands & feet. Since eliminating foods high in salicylates my symptoms have completely disappeared. So thankful to discover this information. Thanks!!!
So great to hear it, Linda!!! Thank you so much for taking the time to share your success. We live for these moments Take care!