How do you know if you have a food intolerance?

By Gemma | 16th January 2018
Bowl of fruit and vegetables at La Crisalida Retreats Spain

It seems food intolerances are becoming more the norm these days. Many of us have something that we ingest that doesn´t agree with us, whether it results in an upset stomach, bloating or skin irritation. But is it a food intolerance, an allergy or just an over-indulgence?

What we believe may be a food intolerance could actually stem from other lifestyle factors. We each respond differently to foods and the environment. Each body is completely unique, and what works for one person can wreak havoc on another. There is no one size fits all approach, so listening to your body is what counts.

What is the difference between an intolerance and an allergy?

Food intolerances tend to manifest as digestive problems, such as bloating, flatulence, irritable bowels, stomach ache, and headaches. Some people also experience coughing, a runny nose or a skin rash. These symptoms tend to develop slowly after eating the food item(s) and can take up to 48 hours to develop. The most common culprits of a food intolerance are dairy (milk, yoghurt, cheese), gluten or wheat, and food additives (like monosodium glutamate [MSG], artificial sweeteners).

Unlike an intolerance, an allergy involves an immune response from your body. This immune response is what we call an allergic reaction, and occurs when usually harmless substance found in food are perceived as a threat by your body. The immune system responds rapidly to release chemicals to attack the substance, and these chemicals create symptoms such as itchiness, rashes or hives, swelling of the tongue, lips or face, restricted breath, vomiting, and even anaphylaxis (a severe form of all of these symptoms which can be life threatening). An allergic reaction to food tends to happen almost immediately after eating or coming into contact with even a small amount of that food product. Any food can cause an allergy depending on our own individual make-up, but the most common causes are peanuts, tree nuts, milk, eggs, fish and shellfish.

Other factors such as dust, stress and lifestyle choices can present some similar symptoms, so it is worth taking this into consideration when trying to seek the cause.

Self-diagnosis of food intolerance

Every body is different so the best place to start is by watching your own reactions to food. With some work you can start to identify what might be causing your symptoms.

  •  Keeping a food diary is the first step in tracking your symptoms. This can help you start to identify patterns and weed out the cause. Write down what you eat and drink each time, even if it seems arbitrary, for at least one week. Include how you feel before and after eating, and also if you have any particular feelings throughout that day, like bloating for example, or perhaps mood swings. It is important to note this as and when your experience it. Unlike allergic reactions, which can happen within minutes of consumption, intolerances can often be delayed, by hours or even days.
  • Elimination diets can be done one of two ways. One is by cutting out all the foods that you believe may be suspect and then keeping track of how you feel. Though this may seem easier and less turbulent on your lifestyle in the short run, it might be worth doing a full-scale elimination diet to get the most out of it.

For the full-scale elimination diet, remove all suspected food groups for an extended period of time. This varies depending on which method you go with, which can be anywhere from one week to one month. After this period, reintroduce one suspect group for a day, such as dairy, then eliminate again for another three days to see how you feel. Next add in a different suspect food for a day, go back onto the diet for three days and see how you react again. Repeat with all suspect foods. This may seem like a long, arduous process, but if you do have a food intolerance then this may be a more effective way to decipher what is causing it.

The delay in reinstating foods and then taking them out again is important as it can take a few days to react. Also, it is key to add in one food group at a time. Adding in multiple triggers together means there is no way of telling which one caused the reaction.

  • To get the most effective feedback from all of the above, cut out alcohol, sugar and other processed foods. Also reduce or eliminate caffeine if you can bear it! These all affect the integrity of your gut, and therefore you will not be able to experience a true ´reading´ of what is happening. You may need to wean yourself off these before you fully commit to your elimination diet, as you can experience detox symptoms. Read our blog article on natural relief for detox symptoms.

Seek professional help

There are many professionals around that can support you or help you, particularly if you are experiencing severe symptoms. As with anything, speak to the professionals, find out more about them, ask friends for recommendations, check review sites and listen to the inner you – if you like them, try them out.

  • Start with an allergy test to rule out anything that may be harmful or dangerous to your body. Set up an appointment with your doctor to get some tests done. These could be using blood or hair samples, or skin tests whereby different allergens are dropped onto a patch of skin to see if there is a reaction.
  • Dieticians and nutritionists can help with dietary interventions, and recommend supplements and food plans. They will work with you towards a specific health-related goal by using their knowledge in the science of nutrition to help discover the source of the intolerance.
  • Health coaches will work with you to identify what does and doesn´t work for your body. They acknowledge that every person is unique, and that one size does not fit all. They can support and guide you through new food choices such as an elimination diet. Their holistic approach goes beyond just the food, taking into consideration lifestyle factors, and helps implement new choices and habits to create a more balanced lifestyle.

Ways to help yourself if you have an intolerance

If you find that you do have a food intolerance, there are many ways that you can help yourself.

  • Experiment with alternatives. This is your opportunity to get creative! Check out different cookbooks and online recipes. Chances are there are plenty of other people out there in the same boat. For example if you think you are intolerant to dairy, there are many soya or nut based alternatives for milk and yoghurts.
  • Create go-to dishes when you´re out of ideas. Having a back-up plan is always good when you’re running low on inspiration. Keep the fridge stocked up with your emergency ingredients!
  • If eating out, ring ahead of time so the chef can make sure you are catered for. Depending on the type of establishment you’re visiting, many restaurants are happy to help and adapt if they can, so long as they have a little notice. Alternatively, find some restaurants or cafes where they offer different options on the menu.
  • Bring your own dish. People with intolerances can become worried about social situations when they don’t know what food they can eat. Again, let the host know ahead of time that you’ll be bringing your own supplies, and correspond with them so that you can prepare and make a complementary alternative.
  • Identify your trigger foods and avoid them. This may sound obvious, but sometimes the problematic foods just so happen to be the ones we love the most! Depending upon the severity of your intolerance, some people can have a small amount and not experience discomfort. This may take some experimenting, and there can be other factors that could lead to different responses each time so proceed with caution!
  • Be firm on whether you are intolerant or not. Sitting on the fence can confuse people, and if you don´t take it seriously, then neither will other people.

What happens if none of this works?

So, you feel like you´ve tried everything? There might be other things causing your symptoms (or making them worse).

  • Consider what medications you might be using. Some have side effects or can create intolerances if they are hard on the stomach, such as antibiotics. Always consult a professional before reducing or eliminating your dosage.
  • Perhaps it’s not what you think it is. Some people who experience irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and label themselves as gluten intolerant may not be reacting to gluten at all, but something called Fodmaps (fermentable oligo-, di-, mono-saccharides and polyols). These fodmaps are molecules of short-chained carbohydrates (mostly sugars, such as fructose, lactose, fructans, galactan and polyols) that are poorly absorbed and ferment in the gut. These sugars attract water and feed gas-generating bacteria in the small intestine, resulting in bloating and flatulence.
  • Another example is Candida. This common yeast infection presents symptoms similar to food intolerances, such as IBS, joint pain and cravings. Conditions such as these are harder to identify and understand, so consider working with a professional. There is lots of information on the internet (sometimes the amount of information can be overwhelming and confusing), so take a look and then speak with a professional.
  • Other lifestyle factors such as stress or anxiety can bring on physical side effects like eczema and stomach issues. Similarly, the more anxious we become around food, the more our symptoms are magnified, and so it becomes a cycle. A 2016 study on food hypersensitivity in children under 10, found that three quarters of children outgrew their sensitivity by the age of three (see the study in Pediatric Allergy and Immunology journal – external link). Some intolerances may come and go depending on our age, lifestyle choices and environment.

Whilst food can create intolerances, once we have identified the cause we can also use food to heal ourselves (read more about this in our previous blog “using food to relieve pain”). Even allergies that are not present in foods, such as grass or pollen, can be eased by what we feed ourselves.

Nutrition can be confusing, at times overwhelming, and become a rabbit hole of seemingly opposing information. It is important to remind ourselves that each of us is made up uniquely and therefore our bodies will respond to foods in different ways. It´s about finding what works for you on an individual level.

Here at La Crisalida Retreats we offer a plant-based diet, cooked from fresh everyday, and we cater for people with food allergies and intolerances. By following a plant-based diet, low in gluten, no alcohol and no caffeine, many people experience an easing of their symptoms. Come try it for yourself.

gemma health and wellbeing mentor at La Crisalida yoga retreat
Gemma

Gemma is a yoga teacher and is currently studying counselling.

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