Chemical Composition and Function in Nature
Salicylates are a broad class of organic chemicals that can occur naturally in plants or are man-made for useful purposes like cleaners and medicines. Aspirin is acetylsalicylic acid, a type of salicylate that is synthetically made in a lab for medicine. We discovered this effective medicine for pain relief from willow bark where the chemical is produced naturally as part of the tree’s defense system. Other plants like spices, fruits, and vegetables contain smaller amounts of salicylates which people may react to.
Salicylate intolerance describes a person’s inability to come in contact with salicylates, whether they are naturally occurring in food or synthetically made like for a fragrance.
Salicylates are very effective plant chemicals. They help a plant produce lignin and pigments (important for storing sugars/energy). Plants that drop leaves with salicylic acid in them, may outcompete the other plants by preventing the competitor from germinating (allelopathy). Salicylates function as a plant hormone by triggering flower and fruit development. The chemicals even help the plant manage biotic (pests and disease) and abiotic (flooding, heat, wind) stresses.
In many health studies, salicylates generally benefit humans. They can relieve pain, thin blood reducing the risk of stroke, and may even reduce the risk of cancer. A diet high in fruits and veggies is the epitome of health! High quality oils like coconut, and avocado are the most popular because of their many health benefits, but are also high in salicylates. It’s important to consider there may be two sides of this coin and for a small portion of the population, salicylates may have the opposite effect on health and cause damage to their body.
What is Salicylate Intolerance?
Salicylate intolerance occurs when you experience a negative side effect when exposed to a salicylate chemical, whether natural or synthetic. An allergy by definition is an immune response and histamine reaction to a protein. Colloquially, we use allergy to explain to others, “If I’m exposed to it, I will get sick.” Salicylates are a chemical, not a protein, which is why it is technically incorrect to say you’re allergic to salicylates. Although, for many, salicylate intolerance is just as serious, still induces a histamine reaction, and may even lead to anaphylaxis.
Salicylate intolerance is somewhat interchangeable with salicylate sensitive. However, in our everyday use of both words, intolerance conveys a rigid, unwillingness to change or compromise, including closed-mindedness – great when salicylates function as poison in your body. Sensitive, on the other hand, has a very soft and responsive connotation, often used to describe people who are emotionally fragile. While sensitive really means quick to respond to stimulus, the casual definition can dilute the severity of salicylate sensitivity. People who are able to handle small amounts of salicylates on a daily basis, may refer to themselves as salicylate sensitive rather than intolerant to convey they can handle a little bit, but not very much. I think both are okay.
In the US, salicylate intolerance is hardly known and little to no research is done. However, it has been recognized in the medical community for over 100 years and is treated in many countries including Australia, UK, Germany, Norway, and Canada.
This is a common list of symptoms and not exhaustive.
- ADHD and hyperactivity
- Back pain
- Bronchial asthma
- Chronic fatigue
- Digestion issues/Intestinal inflammation
- Dystonia – muscular spasms/tics
- Edema (fluid retention)
- Frequent urination
- Hot flashes or feeling hot without a fever
- Immune response (histamine reaction, runny nose, itchy skin, itchy eyes etc.)
- Nasal polyps
- Neurological issues
- Nightmares/Night Terrors
- Muscular pain and body aches
- Rhinitis (stuffy nose)
- Skin rashes
- Tinnitus (ringing in the ears or whooshy feeling)
- Urticaria (hives)
Less Common Symptoms
Sometimes these symptoms are more likely seen in children
- Suicidal thoughts
- Emotional outbreaks
There is no diagnostic test to take at the moment. The usual route for most people is to go through years of allergy testing to rule out protein allergies to food. Once a dead end is reached, then other food elimination diets are tried, which hopefully includes food chemicals. The best way to find out if you’re sensitive to salicylates is to try a low-salicylate diet and see if your symptoms improve. Work with an allergist or dietician who can help you on the journey and give you guidance. Keeping a food journal is also a great idea. Salicylates can build up over a few days, so a reaction to food may not seem as quick as a traditional protein-allergy reaction, however, sometimes they can be immediate and fierce too. It’s important to note that there are many reactive food chemicals, besides salicylates. Two popular elimination diets to check out are the Feingold protocol that focuses on salicylates and food additive. The Failsafe diet includes salicylates, amines, glutamates, sulfites, and additives.
The best thing about elimination diets are that there is no test to pay, no pill to take, and no money to spend, other than buying good-for-you whole foods and giving it a try. You may even save some money!
There are three methods to managing salicylate intolerance. The first is to avoid it. However, avoiding it is challenging, so the next step is to manage the symptoms. In some countries there are chemical desensitization treatments (similar to allergy shots) and some practitioners will work on improving gut-microbiota or improving liver and detox pathways.
For the most part, adhering to a strict no/low salycilate diet is manageable and life changing for many who have been sick for a long time. Some people are only affected by the food they consume, while others are also affected by the fragrances and chemicals they inhale, or the products they absorb through their skin. Adhering to a strict diet is easier than managing situations outside of your control, like coworkers’ fragrance or air fresheners at restaurants.
When a histamine reaction has been started (hives, itching, swelling in the mouth, runny nose, sneezing) Benedryl works for many, but can cause drowsiness – look for the dye-free version. Other anti-histamines and corticosteroids can help reduce the inflammation. Many people say that soaking in epsom salt baths help the body eliminate the excess salicylates quickly because sulfur can be absorbed through the skin, an element needed to eliminate sals. Drinking a glass of water with a teaspon of sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) also may help reduce the reaction. Please talk with your medical provider about best practices to manage your symptoms.
- organic chemicals are made of a carbon back-bone, its definition is unrelated to “organic” food and can include both natural and man-made chemicals. Organic compounds are not water-based compounds and include substances like fats, oil, gasoline, acetone, most fragrances, and plastics.
This information is not intended for medical advice. Always consult with your doctor and/or dietician before beginning a dietary investigation into a food intolerance. Information on this site is drawn from my personal experience and scientific literature. The low-sal-life.com and Sarah Verlinde-Azofeifa cannot be held liable for any errors or omissions. However, if corrections are needed, please let me know.
- Baenkler HW. Salicylate intolerance: pathophysiology, clinical spectrum, diagnosis and treatment. Dtsch Arztebl Int. 2008;105(8):137–142. doi:10.3238/arztebl.2008.0137. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2696737.
- Duthie GG, Wood AD. Natural salicylates: foods, functions and disease prevention. Food Funct. 2011;2(9):515–520. doi:10.1039/c1fo10128e