Salicylate Sensitivity and Polyphenols

Polyphenols make a good case for eating lots of fruits and veggies of every color, shape, size, and taste. And ladies, read on! There is science to prove that dark chocolate in moderation may be good for you. But keep in mind, for some–a few of these foods may not be the best for you.

First, the good…….

What are polyphenols?

Polyphenols are a form of phytonutrients. Specifically, they are fat-soluble phytochemicals found in over 9,000 plant foods. Their job is to protect the plant from harm. The more a plant is subjected to harsh conditions, the more phytonutrients it creates.

This is why organic foods may be more nutrient-dense than conventionally raised crops, working harder at protection, they create more phytonutrients.

Which foods contain polyphenols?

Polyphenols are commonly found in fruits, veggies, legumes, cereals, tea (black, white, and green), red wine, chocolate, and olive oil.

Common fruits and vegetables high in polyphenols include apples, blackberries, blueberries, cantaloupes, pomegranates, cherries, cranberries, grapes, pears, plums, raspberries, aronia berries, strawberries, broccoli, cabbage, celery, onions, and parsley. A full list can be found at here.

In addition, many artificial flavorings and coloring agents made from petroleum products contain phenols.

Why are polyphenols important for my health?

The 2013 Journal of Nutrition reported that older adults with a high polyphenol intake of over 650 mg per day had a 30% reduction in mortality compared to with those who consumed less than 500 mg per day. 

Polyphenols  can  help alleviate degenerative diseases such as Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular issues, Alzheimer’s, osteoporosis, etc.—in other words, pretty much any condition that is rooted in inflammation.

They are involved cell proliferation and cell death,–minimizing the risk of developing cancer.

Polyphenols have antioxidant effects as well as aid in heavy metal chelation.


Many of us in the FM world consider Dr. Jeffrey Bland, PhD to be the father of functional medicine. He has always been ahead of the curve, but I believe his most important contributions are his findings on the interaction between food and its ability to control genetic expression. This means that our diet can possibly influence the genetic expression leading to certain diseases and conditions.

Phytochemicals specifically have been shown to be able to communicate with certain genes that control the production and release of inflammatory messengers to minimize their release.


Polyphenols interact with our gut microbiotia, which itself influences genetic expression.

Polyphenols act as a prebiotic for good bacteria which promotes overall gut health. Being that they are difficult to absorb, they get sent to the large intestines largely unprocessed. They are then broken down by gut bacteria This leads to a symbiotic relationship between the gut bacteria and polyphenol metabolites —-bacteria create the metabolites and they in turn provide the food for the beneficial bacteria.

According to Dr. Datis Kharrazian, if your microbiome is not healthy, you many not be able to initially process polyphenols. But over time, these compounds should help the diversity the biome enough to start effectively processing them.

Are there any negative effects of polyphenols on health?

Unfortunately, there are some folks that have frank sensitivities to these foods.

According to Dr. Rosemary Waring, PhD, phenols seem to affect the body by interfering with an enzyme in our sulfation pathway. Sulfation is an important detoxification pathway responsible for the elimination of steroid and thyroid hormones, neurotransmitters, and toxins created by intestinal bacteria. This same pathway is also used to remove artificial food colorings, artificial flavorings, and some preservatives from our bodies.

Phenols can be broken down into the following 3 categories: 

  • Artificial Phenols : artificial colors, flavors, preservatives (petroleum-based), Propionic acid
  • Salicylates : Salicylic acid (aspirin), Phenols occurring in plant foods like apples, berries, grapes, almonds, honey, spices/herbs
  • Phenolic amines: Neurotransmitters – serotonin, dopamine, Histamine, tyramine and other amine containing foods

Those with leaky gut are far more susceptible to issues with phenols, especially a type called salicylates.

What are salicylates?

The list of salicylate-containing foods is enough to make you cry and you might have to give up aspirin as well. Specific phenol foods can be found here. Salicylates are inherent to plants to  protect themselves from insects and disease.

What are the symptoms of issues with salicylates?

Dr. Feingold states that folks with phenol sensitivities who consumes large quantities of foods high in phenol or foods containing salicylates may experience some of these symptoms:

  • Anaphylaxis (rare)
  • Asthma
  • Breathing difficulties
  • Changes in skin color
  • Cognitive and perceptual disorders
  • Congestion
  • Eye muscle disorder
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Hyperactivity
  • Itchy skin, rash, or hives
  • Itchy, watery, or swollen eyes
  • Joint pain
  • Lack of concentration or memory
  • Mouth ulcers or raw hot red rash around mouth
  • Nasal polyps
  • Persistent cough
  • Sinusitis
  • Stomach aches or upsets
  • Swelling of eyelids, face, and lips
  • Swelling of hands and feet
  • Urgency to pass water or bedwetting
  • Wheezing

Additional symptoms include chronic fatigue syndrome-like symptoms, anxiety disorders, night waking, night sweats, and irritability. I have also read that children may have dark circles under their eyes, red ears, and a pale face.

How do you support salicylates issues?

The effect of salicylates may be cumulative and delayed, so the only way to know if phenols, salicylates, or additives are affecting your health is to limit them for a period of time and then bring them back in to see how they make you feel. You may choose to first exclude all of the man-made sources of phenols and salicylates to see how you do. The Feingold Program  has shown great promise to help those affected by salicylates.

In addition, you may support digestion of moderate phenol and salicylate consumption by taking a digestive enzyme especially tailored for phenols with each meal.

Epsom salt baths may also help support sulfation issues. 

Note: According to a 1994 article in Biochemical Pharmacology, high doses of vitamin B6 can aggravate the situation, so be careful with your doses if you supplement with B6, especially if you experience burning or tingling at your extremities.

What is the  Feingold Program  for salicylates issues?

The Feingold Program removes high-phenol foods and salicylate-containing foods from the diet and has been doing so for years. It also removes artificial colorings and flavorings (i.e., FD&C colors, vanillin), artificial preservatives (BHA, BHT, and TBHQ), and aspartame. The program also takes away non-food phenol and salicylate sources, including aspirin, toothpaste, medicines, and gum.

They are also quick to point out:

  • “The amount of salicylate can vary from one variety of a fruit to another, and even the levels in a particular plant can change. For example, organic fruits in an orchard that has been attacked by pests will make more salicylate than other fruits.
  • Different parts of a plant might have different levels of salicylate. The amounts can vary between the pulp, seeds, and peel of a fruit or vegetable.
  • Sensitivity can vary depending on whether the fruit or vegetable is raw or cooked. For example, fresh pineapple may cause a problem for the same person who tolerates canned pineapple or pineapple juice. (Canned pineapple is acceptable on Stage One of the Feingold Diet, but fresh pineapple should not be used at the very beginning.
  • Foods grown in one region might not be the same as foods grown in another.
  • We don’t even know that it is only the salicylate in a food that is to blame; there could be other naturally occurring chemicals that play a part.
  • Typically, a salicylate-sensitive person has problems with only some—not all—salicylates.
  • Salicylate sensitivity can change; frequently a person who avoids them for a year or so can later tolerate moderate amounts of them.
  • “Other items to consider are “perfumes and fragrances, nitrites and nitrates, monosodium glutamate [MSG], hydrolyzed vegetable protein [may contain MSG], sulfites/sulfiting agents, benzoates, and corn syrup [made from hydrogen sulfide + corn starch and many other added chemicals].”

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