If you are one of those people with a cast iron stomach who can eat anything with no noticeable adverse effect, this probably won’t interest you very much. If however you are one of the many people who suspect that a food may be the underlying cause of some of your health issues, please read on.
Often when I am questioning clients about their diets during a consultation, they will tell me that some specific foods give them specific symptoms. It may be that capsicums give them reflux or that dairy gives them flatulence. These are the more mild and straight-forward kinds of intolerances. If you know what it is that is bothering you, its easy enough to avoid it. It also helps to know what specific effects the trigger food has on you, so for instance knowing that wheat makes your joints more painful or your head a bit foggy is of use. Tuning in to your symptoms and paying close attention to diet and its effects on your body can be extremely useful, but if you don’t find any obvious connections, it can be extremely frustrating too!
Food intolerances are different from food allergies in many ways. Allergies are an immediate immune reaction to a specific substance that the body thinks is a threat. The reaction speedily produces symptoms that are usually rather obvious – swelling of the tongue or throat, difficulty breathing, rashes and the like.
The tricky aspect to food intolerances is that they aren’t always so obvious. Some might even call them insidious! They are definitely more subtle and sneaky affairs. There are two reasons for the difficulty in self-diagnosing food reactions. The first is that the suspected food doesn’t always give you a problem. So you might be able to eat bagels one day and be fine, and eat them another day and get terrible digestive cramps. The second is that sometimes there is more than one culprit. This makes it very confusing, because the bagels might be fine on their own, but if you have them with cream cheese and a coffee you notice you have problems. These difficulties lie in the fact that each person is not only individual, but has individual levels of tolerance for reactive foods. So you might be fine with half a bagel, but a whole one tips you over the edge. Similarly, if you have a mild sensitivity to both wheat (bagel) and dairy (cream cheese, milk in the coffee), the combination might be what tips you over into problem territory. Stress or illness can also make people more sensitive to the wrong foods.
Another reason it is difficult to identify food triggers is that the effects they produce can be so diverse. Some people get vague feelings of lowered energy and fuzzy thinking, while others get extreme digestive upsets and bowel changes. Muscular pain, joint pain, headaches, skin problems – all can have food sensitivities as contributing factors.
A simplified plan for dealing with intolerances may look something like this:
Identifying the reactive foods, as outlined above, can be tricky. Food diaries and elimination diets can be useful but have their limitations. If you feel stuck it is best to talk to a qualified naturopath or registered medical herbalist who will be able to help you and provide information about the different forms of testing available.
Once you have identified the culprit(s), avoiding them for a period of time allows the body’s reactivity to calm down and symptoms to subside. Usually this is for a minimum of 4 weeks, but depends on how severe the reactions are and what other imbalances may need addressing.
The next step, ‘heal and rebalance’ is the crucial step that is often missing when people don’t seek the right support. This is also the difference between being able to eventually reintroduce a food without it causing a problem, and not. Intolerances are usually not life-long, and working on healing the body and returning it to optimum function can reduce reactivity and intolerances. This step is, however, highly individual! For some this means addressing imbalances in the digestive system, such as a poor balance of gut bacteria, a sensitive stomach, or a sluggish liver that needs extra support to process food substances effectively.
Reducing excessive stress is always an important part of dealing with food intolerances. Stress puts us into a ‘fight or flight’ mode, which is the opposite in our bodies to the ‘rest and digest’ mode needed to adequately break down foods. Recent research shows that the some of the most successful treatments for Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) are mind-body approaches. A significant part of our nervous system is actually in our guts, and our mood and emotion actually effects our digestion significantly, and vice versa.
Herbs that may be useful for supporting food intolerances include herbs which reduce the effects of stress in the body, such as Withania, Lemon Balm, and Chamomile. Liver support herbs such as Globe Artichoke, St Mary’s Thistle and Dandelion Root can improve digestion and liver function. Digestive herbs which reduce cramping, spasm and irritation in the gut can be extremely beneficial, such as Kawakawa, Chamomile, Lemon Balm, Hoheria and Manuka. Herbs which reduce irritation and reactivity such as Baical Skullcap are also useful.
Reintroducing trigger foods after a period of healing and rebalancing should be done carefully and systematically. Some people find that they can at this point learn what their level of tolerance is, while others find they are so much healthier overall that they are no longer reactive to the trigger food. Even when this is the case however, it can sometimes be advised to avoid these trigger foods over times of illness or vulnerability.
Discussing the reasons for our increasing levels of sensitivities to food would be a whole other article, but eating a whole-food diet, organic where possible, is a great start for improving health and reducing reactivity. Working out what suits us, and what doesn’t, is an important part of creating energy and vitality in our lives. Remember you are an individual, trust your instincts and if you feel like you might be reactive to something, it just might be true, but it needn’t be a life sentence.