Discovering a food intolerance or sensitivity can be a confusing process. Often, the symptoms are mistaken for simply not feeling well. Research shows it can be years before possible food intolerance is explored. We don’t like to hear that we need to cut something out of our diet, consequently food intolerances can be ignored. On the flip-side, some people are cutting out many foods they could otherwise be enjoying, unsure of what’s causing them discomfort.
The difference between food intolerance and allergy
Firstly, let’s be clear about what the difference is between a food intolerance and a food allergy. Where there is a food allergy, an abnormal immune system response prompts the body to make antibodies to ‘fight off’ a food. The response is usually quite sudden and intense, including symptoms such as:
- itchy skin
- rashes or hives
- shortness of breath
- chest pain, and
- a drop in blood pressure.
Anaphylaxis is a combination of the above symptoms — it’s life threatening and must be treated immediately. Allergies will cause an immune system response every time a person eats the allergen which is most commonly: gluten, peanuts or tree nuts, fish or shellfish, milk, eggs or soy.
Food intolerance or sensitivity is a much slower process within the body; it comes on gradually. Your body may not respond well to a substance only once it’s eaten often or in large amounts. For example, you might tolerate low levels of wheat throughout the week, or you’re able to eat a pizza when you’re relaxed and well. However, once there is a build-up of wheat in your system you start to see and feel your symptoms.
Here’s the KEY to managing intolerances: Your overall health and well-being will have a big impact on how your body handles substances that it’s sensitive to. I’ll discuss this further at the end of the article!
Signs of a food intolerance
Signs that you may have a food intolerance can be both physical and emotional. This is mainly due to the link between gut health and the brain. A food intolerance may cause one or many of the common symptoms below:
- bloating, gas, cramps
- diarrhea and/or constipation
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome
- stomach pain
- joint pain
- candida / thrush
- skin rash
- weight gain or weight loss
- lethargy, feeling flat
Why am I intolerant to certain foods?
There is much debate and research into what’s causing the rise in food intolerance. One recurring theme is the move away from natural and organically farmed foods to processed, artificially treated and preserved foods, as well as the many artificial additives for colouring and flavour. Many of these additives have not been tested enough to know the full effect they have on our health. Shockingly, some additives that are known to cause damage are still being used. This varies from country to country as to what chemicals are allowed to be in our food
As an example, this image from Grainstorm.com shows how modern wheat is processed: starting as an ancient whole grain and ending up stripped of its nutrients into white flour form.
Another possibility to consider are enzymes. Lactose (the sugar in milk) is one of the most common intolerances and is due to an enzyme deficiency or defect. Enzymes are needed by the body to help with the breakdown of natural substances found in certain foods. Without the relevant enzyme, or not enough of it, the body cannot deal with part of the food. In this instance, the enzyme ‘lactase’ is needed to digest and absorb lactose. You might experience cramping, bloating, diarrhoea and lethargy as your gut struggles with breaking down the lactose without lactase.
It’s not always artificial chemicals and toxins that can cause an intolerance. While it’s extremely important that we strive to clear these damaging ingredients from our food sources, some people are intolerant to natural food chemicals such as amines found in cheese, chocolate and wine (“nooooo!”) and salicylates found in certain fruits and vegetables. This is why some people struggle to identify the source of discomfort as it can be something ‘healthy’.
What do I do next?
Mind-body medicine and a holistic approach to your health means that by checking in with your gut health and what foods may be compromising your health and well-being, a positive ripple effect will occur across your physical, emotional and mental health.
You body has many mechanisms to talk to you and let you know that there’s a problem. Listening to and observing your body after you eat and keeping a food journal is a great way to track and identify patterns of an imbalance.
If you suspect something might be upsetting you, cut it out completely for two weeks and re-introduce it to see how you feel. Your body will need some time to balance and heal which is why you need sometime without the substance.
And finally — get some help. There are many ways to use food as medicine to support health and well-being and get your body back on track. Don’t put yourself through an elimination diet without professional guidance from a naturopath, nutritionist or dietician. A kinesiologist trained in food intolerance testing will also be able to help your discover which substances you are intolerant to and can help balance the body to initiate healing.
I will leave you with food for thought: food intolerances are not a life sentence — by working to heal your body, improve your physiology, treat any other underlying causes or connections. and find balance emotionally and mentally, there’s a good chance you’ll be able to once again enjoy a glass of wine or a piece of cheese.