Do you feel permanently exhausted, suffer unexplained bloating or break out in ulcers after eating certain foods? This could be due to food intolerance. Food intolerance is a physical reaction to some types of food or drink which the body has difficulty digesting, sometimes because the sufferer lacks the necessary enzymes or maybe because of chemicals released by certain foods. It is different from a true food allergy because an allergy involves the immune system whereas, with food intolerance, symptoms appear without the involvement of the immune system.
Where somebody suffers an allergic reaction to food, symptoms can appear within minutes, sometimes even where only the smallest amounts of the particular food has been consumed. A true allergic reaction can cause life-threatening anaphylaxis. With food intolerance however, symptoms usually appear more gradually and often small amounts of the particular food or drink can be fairly well tolerated.
However, the unpleasant consequences of food intolerance should not be underestimated. The condition can cause a significant amount of pain discomfort and stress in everyday life. Some individuals suffer for years, without realising that the elimination of certain foods from their diet could transform the way they feel. One of the most upsetting aspects of food intolerance for many of those who are affected is the perception by some sceptics that the condition is “all in the mind”. However, as some estimates reckon that as many as 20% of us will suffer symptoms of food intolerance at some point in our lives, attitudes are slowly changing. Who would try to argue today that celiac disease (a serious intolerance to gluten) or asthma (a condition sometimes triggered by food intolerance) are not real?
Food Intolerance Symptoms
The symptoms of food intolerance can often be hard to match to the cause, particularly when caused by something which is eaten regularly. They can occur many hours or even days after consumption of the particular food.
There are a wide range of food intolerance symptoms, which fall into three main groups:
- Digestive problems such as bloating, gas, stomach pain or cramps, IBS, diarrhea, constipation or vomiting
- Skin problems such as hives, a rash or eczema
- Respiratory problems such as a blocked nose, sinusitis, wheezing, breathing difficulties, coughing or asthma
Other symptoms sometimes associated with food intolerance include headaches, migraines, joint pain, chronic fatigue syndrome, mouth ulcers and general tiredness, lethargy, sometimes described as fogginess, weight loss or failure to thrive.
In many people, several of the above symptoms are present at the same time.
Causes of Food Intolerance
There are many different causes of food intolerance. Some people are intolerant to certain types of food because they lack the necessary enzymes needed to digest it. This is the cause of lactose intolerance, the most commonly identified food intolerance. Lactose is a sugar found in milk and other dairy products. Some persons with lactose intolerance find that although milk causes a reaction, they are able to tolerate other dairy products such as cheese which contains relatively smaller quantities of lactose.
Food additives are another common substance to which some people are intolerant. Additives such as sulfites, which are found in wines, canned food, processed food and dried fruits can cause symptoms of food intolerance.
Some people find that irritants such as coffee, curry or chocolate can cause digestive problems such as mouth ulcers or diarrhea. Others are unable to properly absorb fructose, which is found in fruits, certain vegetables and drinks.
Stress is known to make existing food intolerances worse in some people. For some it might even be a cause of the condition, as might poor overall diet or other health conditions.
Diagnosis of Food Intolerance
A diagnosis of food intolerance can be difficult to make. Apart from lactose intolerance and fructose malabsorption, for which there are recognised tests, the only way to find out if you are intolerant to a particular food or drink is to try doing without it to see if symptoms improve or disappear.
This may seem surprising as it is hard to miss adverts in health food shops and newspapers offering to test you for food intolerances. Any internet search using the term will throw up scores of companies happy to take your money in return for dubious tests and diagnoses. These tests can be inaccurate and can actually get in the way of helping you to eliminate the right foods from your diet whilst ensuring that you receive adequate nutrition overall.
If you suspect that you may be intolerant or allergic to any type of food or drink the best course of action without doubt is to make an appointment to see your doctor. They will be able to refer you for tests to determine whether you suffer from a potentially life-threatening food allergy, or for lactose intolerance, fructose malabsorption and celiac disease. They will also be able to investigate for other, potentially serious conditions which may be the cause of your symptoms. Once these conditions have been eliminated, then intolerance to something other than lactose, gluten or fructose is likely to be suspected. You will be advised to keep a detailed food diary, recording everything you ate over a period of time, probably several weeks, and the nature, timing and duration of all symptoms. Then you might be advised to try an elimination diet.
Management of Food Intolerance – an elimination diet
An elimination diet is best carried out under the supervision of an appropriately qualified dietician. Your doctor ought to be able to recommend one with suitable qualifications and experience. Where children or infants are suspected of having food intolerance, proper medical supervision is essential to ensure that cutting out certain foods or food groups does not get in the way of essential growth and good health.
You will be asked to completely eliminate the suspect food or foods from your diet for several weeks or months. During this time you should also keep a detailed food diary. Once it becomes clear which food or foods are causing your symptoms, a period of complete abstention will be advised. After eliminating the particular food for several weeks, months or longer, it may be possible to gradually reintroduce the food. Many people then find that they will not suffer further symptoms provided they only eat the food in small amounts or occasionally. Your dietician should be able to advise you on how best to live with your problem.