Photo courtesy: Drew Coffman
While food allergies are seemingly rare, food intolerances are much more common and widespread. A recent study found that one in five adults in the UK report suffering from a food intolerance. So, what's the difference between allergies and intolerances, and how do you know if you have one?
Food allergies are immune system reactions and range in severity - from a mild skin rash right through to a life threatening anaphylactic shock. Fortunately, food allergies are easy to identify and can be checked using a blood sample for IgE antibodies. Less fortunately however, if you are diagnosed with one or multiple food allergies then you will need to learn to avoid those foods for life.
A food intolerance is a response in the digestive system as opposed to an immune reaction, and may have multiple causes. Indeed, many food intolerances are the result of enzyme deficiency. For example, you may not produce enough lactase to digest lactose in dairy, or enough protease to digest gluten. It is also possible that you may have low stomach acid, which will prevent you from breaking certain foods down properly. Some people are sensitive to caffeine and to the natural amines in cheese and chocolate. Moreover, certain foods contain natural toxins, such as night shade vegetables, or additives in food that you may be sensitive to.
Food intolerance reactions tend to have a slower onset than allergic reactions, are often dose related, and are not usually life threatening; they can however, be deeply unpleasant and even affect your quality of life! Furthermore, since the symptoms of food intolerances are so diverse and play out in every aspect of our health, it is very common for people to live with them for many years before identifying the crux of the problem.
So how can you recognise food intolerances? If you suffer from bloating, cramps, diarrhoea or constipation, and your doctor has ruled out allergies and checked for other typical causes, then it is quite likely that you have a food intolerance. Similarly, if you suffer from headaches, joint pain, dark circles under the eyes and brain fog, then it would be wise to investigate the possibility of food intolerance.
So how do you find out what causes you the problem? Food intolerances are notoriously difficult to diagnose partly because the reaction often occurs hours or even days after an offending food is eaten, and partly because very often multiple foods are contributing.
If you think you may have a food intolerance and want to investigate, then the first step is to keep a food, mood, and symptom diary. If you notice a pattern with one or more foods, then take them out of your diet for at least nine days. After this, reintroduce the suspected foods one day at a time and note any reactions. Sometimes, when you monitor your diet in this way, the offending foods become obvious and, once eliminated, your symptoms improve.
While this approach has proven to be useful, I sometimes find it is also limited because people often consume small amounts of foods, like milk or corn, without realising, and this can confuse the results. It can also be challenging to eliminate multiple food groups for several weeks, and people often give up before they can gather accurate results. If this is the case for you, or if you follow the protocol correctly and still don't manage to identify the offending foods, then food intolerance testing may be necessary. I use IgG4 bloodspot tests from Genova Diagnostics, which measures levels of IgG4 antibodies in commonly offending foods including milk, corn, wheat, egg, and foods that are processed with moulds such as black tea, breads and fruit juices. This test is highly effective at identifying previously 'hidden' food intolerances.
Alongside this, it may also be necessary to investigate how well your digestive system is functioning as a whole. If you have low stomach acid or insufficient levels of a particular enzyme, or if you have imbalanced levels of beneficial and pathogenic bacteria in your gut, this will need to be addressed before your symptoms can improve.
If you would like my help to identify possible food intolerances or other causes of digestive distress, then a book a health MOT today. During your health MOT, I can advise you on all of the above and design a food and supplement plan tailored specifically to you. I can also arrange tests for food and additive intolerances, stomach acid and enzyme status or a microbiology profile, if this is required.
Your guide to living whole and well. Emma Olliff is a Registered Nutritional Therapist, wellness expert, food lover, and advocate for healthy living!