Let’s talk food intolerance
If you experience many different and confusing types of reactions in your body, you might suffer from food intolerances. The reactions may be evident in your skin as hives, rashes, itchiness or swellings. You might feel it in your gut as reflux, vomiting, stomach pains, gas, diarrhea, and constipation. You can experience shortness of breath or a tight chest. Or you can simply feel like you have the flu. Some people put up with such symptoms for years, not knowing food is part of the explanation.
A food allergy can cause most of the same signs and symptoms as a food intolerance, so you can easily confuse the two. A food allergy is caused by an exaggerated reaction by the immune system in response to a certain food. Even a tiny amount of the offending food can cause an immediate, severe reaction if you have a food allergy. In contrast, food intolerances are often connected to the digestive system and food intolerance symptoms will often come on gradually or be delayed. If you have a food intolerance, you may also be able to eat small amounts of an offending food without too much trouble.
What is causing the problems
Finding out which foods are causing your symptoms can be difficult, especially if your reactions are delayed or you are reacting to many different kinds of food. Having tests done by your general practitioner or an allergist can tell you if you have allergies, but will rarely inform you about other food intolerances than celiac disease (intolerance to gluten). Although you experience being sensitive to gluten, you can’t be sure the test will confirm this because you need to eat gluten for weeks before the test is taken, if it shall be able to point out celiac disease. Another possibility is that you can suffer from non-celiac gluten sensitivity which won’t be detected on standard food allergy test. Unfortunately, doctors will rarely inform you of this.
If you buy one of the many food intolerance tests available on the market, you will discover that any one of them will only tell you if you react to a specific food component and to the foods that contain this component. For example, you could have a food intolerance test based on which proteins you react to, but this would not tell you if you are sensitive to common culprits such as salicylates, amines or gluten. So, while each test may help you discover sensitivities, at the same time, they will only reflect a small part of the big picture.
Other types of medical tests may be relevant to take as well since sensitivity to foods is most often not the root cause of ill health. Food intolerances can be caused by parasites, lack of enzymes, leaky gut, painkillers (like NSAIDs), chronically low SIgA, inflammation, bacterial overgrowth, mast cell disorders and many other diseases and conditions. In order to sort out what is causing your specific intolerance, further testing will be necessary. Unfortunately you might experience that neither your GP nor your allergist will offer to support you in this journey of discovery. Below you will find links to tests that could be helpful to you. Showing the relevant tests to your medical advisors can sometimes be beneficial.
A food diary can be an important tool to help you identify which foods are causing your problems. You can eliminate one type of food or a whole food group at a time from your diet. Gluten, dairy products, high histamine foods, sugar and additives are some of the most common foods and ingredients that cause intolerance problems, so these could be the ones to try to eliminate first. Many intolerant people have experienced gluten to be a root cause of all other intolerance issues, so it is often a good idea to avoid gluten entirely. Many other foods can also be problematic, so it helps to be open-minded.
What to do
Some words of warning: It is very important not to eliminate more foods than absolutely necessary. Too many people have made the mistake of eliminating a lot of foods, only to become sensitive to the few foods left in their diet. It is better to find a balance and try to figure out how much of each food you tolerate, rather than completely eliminating the ones to which you are sensitive. If you have to eliminate larger groups of foods it is very important to try to substitute those foods with foods that have the same nutritional value. Finally it is better to stay away from foods and food components that are inflammatory and generally unhealthy (i.e. processed foods and sugar) rather than eliminating all the healthy foods that are causing minor reactions.
Consulting a supportive doctor and a skilled nutritionist will be very helpful on this journey! Unfortunately, you, like many others before you, might find this is not as easily done as said. Most food intolerances do not come with an acknowledged diagnosis and most doctors are not trained in recognizing them, nor addressing them. At the same time the focus of many nutritionists will be on general health issues rather than on specific diets balancing individual needs. As a consequence many patients with intolerances have had to become assertive and take charge of their own situation in order to improve their health. If you choose likewise, you will be appreciative to find that support these days is being offered through the back door. The number of internet forums, blogs and facebook groups that are addressing food intolerances and other sensitivities is increasingly growing, now offering valuable insight and support to everyone who is experiencing the disappointment of a medical community that has turned its back on them.