Food intolerance (or sensitivities) are becoming an epidemic. How prevalent they are is very difficult to determine, as many people are simply not aware they are suffering from intolerance. Whilst there are various theories as to what drives food intolerance, in my mind, a few really stand out.
Before I begin, I just want to clarify that I’m writing of food intolerance, not an allergy. Food allergies are acute, easily identified immune responses and quite different from intolerance. Intolerance involves a reaction to chemicals (either natural occurring or synthetic) and sometimes cause delayed reactions, occurring even days after exposure. The symptoms may be chronic and ongoing and not easily related to a specific food. Because intolerance is quite different to allergy (i.e., doesn’t involve an immune response), allergy testing is of little use in determining what foods to avoid.
The types of symptoms that commonly occur when intolerance is an issue includes (but not exclusively), headache, migraine, skin rashes, abdominal discomfort, nausea, bloating, wind, diarrhoea and or constipation, aches and pains, fatigue, weight gain, heartburn or indigestion, sinus and nasal congestion, anxiety and mood disorders. In babies and children, there may also be restlessness, irritability, and behavioural problems may be exacerbated. These symptoms cause varying degrees of discomfort and are very often not related to food as their source.
If you feel you may be suffering from an intolerance, you need to seek the advice of a health practitioner. I am not going to, at this point explain the complexities of determining if food allergy may be causing your symptoms. The most common approach to determine if you are suffering an intolerance is via an elimination diet. Once you have determined the offending food or foods, then you will be advised to avoid them.
But there’s SO much more to it…
It is not uncommon in clinical practice to see a patient developing a growing list of food intolerance. That is, they start off being intolerant to one food, and become increasingly sensitive to various other foods. Whilst avoiding the irritating chemical is important, I don’t believe that this is the end of the story. Steps need to be taken to reduce your overall chemical load, whilst also improving your bodies ability to tolerate them.
How to resolve food intolerance…
- Improve your digestive function. This is quintessential to resolving food sensitivities and being able to jump off the round about that food intolerance often becomes. For some, this will involve seeking the help of a naturopath or herbalist. But getting to know your digestive system, understanding common irritants and the things you can do to support its function is important. I have written an in-depth post on digestion which you can find here. It offers lots of simple strategies for improving the function of your digestive system. If you have any type of food intolerance or even suspect that this may be the case, then the most critical thing you need to do is support your digestive system in every way possible. It is not enough to simply avoid the irritant food/s.
- Clean up your diet – eating an S.L.O.W (seasonal, local, organic, whole) food diet is critical. Yes, even naturally occurring chemicals can cause of food intolerance. But if you reduce your overall chemical exposure, you may find you are able to tolerate small quantities of them.
- Avoid genetically modified (GM) foods – I have read that there has been a 400% increase in allergies since GM foods were introduced. I have spoken to so many Naturopathic friends in clinical practice over 20+ years and we can all clearly recognise a massive increase in the development of food intolerance (in both adults and kids). As labelling laws are SO crappy, the only way you can be sure you are not consuming GMO’s is to avoid all packaged and processed foods. Especially avoid vegetable oils, including soy, corn, and canola (though these are often just labeled as ‘vegetable’ oils). Also, avoid any corn derivative including high fructose corn syrup (sugar). Please also consider what we eat, eats; the meat you eat needs to be fully grass-fed (no grain supplement feed) as this is most often from GMO crops. For more on GM foods and how to avoid them, click here.
- Lots of variety – by rotating foods, you will automatically reduce your exposure to any one chemical and thus reduce your symptoms. The poor dietary variety I feel is a common cause of the escalating occurrence of food intolerance. I find this is a catch twenty-two for many people, who eliminate one food only to replace it with a less irritating food, which they then eat too much of and subsequently develop a new intolerance. Variety is SO important, even nutritionally.
- Herbal medicine – when professionally prescribed is amazing for supporting and rebalancing the systems of the body involved in the development of the intolerance (such as the liver, gut, nervous system). This can vary from person to person, so herbs need to be skilfully selected after a full health assessment. I’m a huge fan of herbal medicine for restoring health in a safe, effective way.
- Stress less. Many people when on holiday or celebrating an occasion, find they are able to tolerate foods they wouldn’t ordinarily tolerate in everyday life. Stress management is critical.
Don’t just accept that you are, and will always be food intolerant. By nurturing and rebuilding your digestive system, you can significantly improve your tolerance threshold and enjoy a wide range of delicious whole foods.