Allergies can be tested at specialist clinics with a range of clinically approved tests, however there are no official tests for food intolerances. Companies claiming to have the technology required to identify food intolerances have not yet proven to be reliable or accurate. The current most appropriate method for identifying food intolerances and sensitivities is to track your diet and symptoms with a food diary and carry out a trial elimination diet. Although this requires patience and dedication, it will allow you to distinguish which foods your body has difficulty digesting as well as encourage you to practise mindful eating.
The main difference between an allergy, a sensitivity and an intolerance is based upon your body’s reaction following exposure to the food. When you are allergic to a food, your immune system identifies it as a harmful substance and initiates a distinct immune response. Your immune system also reacts when you are sensitive to a food but the response is far less severe. On the other hand, when you are intolerant to a food the adverse reaction occurs in your gut. Food intolerances result when you do not have the sufficient enzymes required to digest the food.
Symptoms of a food allergy commonly include itching inside the mouth, throat or ears, a rash, swelling of the face and vomiting. A severe allergic reaction known as anaphylaxis can be life threatening and requires emergency medical attention. Food sensitivity symptoms are milder than those of a food allergy due to the attenuated immune response. Common symptoms of a food sensitivity include joint pain, headache and brain fog. Food intolerance symptoms generally involve stomach pain, bloating, wind, diarrhoea, skin rashes and itching and unlike allergies they are never life threatening. Although allergic reactions tend to be immediate while intolerance symptoms do not appear for a couple of hours, delayed allergic reactions are also possible.
Depending on the symptoms you experience, you may require an allergy test or you may simply need to monitor your diet. Allergies are usually easily identified by specialists; however, diagnosing an intolerance requires individual insight and effort. Before carrying out an investigation into your body’s digestion, you should consider other influential factors that can cause similar symptoms to food sensitivities and intolerances. Do you have a gluten intolerance, or are you eating too much bread? Or, are you intolerant to the lactose in the cheese on top of the bread? Are you bloated because you just ate a lot of raw vegetables, or do you also have an intolerance to a FODMAP food?
To avoid misdiagnosing the cause of your symptoms you need to be mindful of every aspect of your diet and lifestyle, from how and when you eat to the cooking methods you use. Often food intolerance symptoms result from an unhealthy gut microbiome rather than a specific food. Cultivating a healthy gut microbiome ensures you are maximising the variety of enzymes available to digest a range of foods. Certain substances in excess quantities such as alcohol, caffeine and sugar trigger inflammation in your gut, leading to digestive problems as well as symptoms associated with food sensitivities and intolerances. There has also been significant evidence to suggest that food additives and preservatives in processed foods and chemicals in certain packaging play a role in digestive issues. Some additives are even believed to worsen allergy symptoms. Substances known as pseudoallergens mimic allergens and trigger an immune response in individuals that are sensitive to them, which can result in allergy symptoms such as hives. As well as food additives, pseudoallergens include salicylates which are found in plants and histamine which is found in cured meats, seafood, mature cheeses and nuts. If your body is sensitive to a pseudoallergen, ingestion of the pseudoallergen may lead to digestive problems. Pseudoallergen sensitivity cannot be tested for like an allergy but can be identified using the food diary and trial elimination diet method.
Before you decide to cut a food out of your diet and risk depriving yourself of the nourishment and enjoyment it provides, reflect on your diet as a whole and take into account how you are eating as well as what you are eating. Prioritise your gut health and digestion and minimise your consumption of processed foods. We now have access to a larger variety of foods than ever before and are likely overloading our digestive systems. We each have unique immune and digestive systems and therefore need to take responsibility to find out what they benefit from and what they are less able to process. Remember that your gut is also closely connected to your brain and therefore has a vital function in maintaining your mental health. At the same time, high levels of stress can influence your mood and negatively impact your digestion. Becoming aware of any intolerances you may have and avoiding foods that distress your gut will help you to sustain a healthy body and a healthy mind.
+ Words: Yasmin Razzaque
Yasmin Razzaque is a Biochemistry graduate with a keen interest in health and nutrition. She uses her scientific knowledge and ability to critically analyse research to write articles about healthy and sustainable eating and wellbeing.