Could Food Be Contributing to Your Disease?
The first thing to understand when looking at food intolerance is digestion itself. The purpose and process of digestion is about rendering an outside food useful for our body for maintaining our growth and development. In an ideal situation, we break down food with the help of digestive juices (enzymes and acids) into tiny molecules that can be used as building blocks in our body. When this breakdown process is incomplete, we can have foods that are absorbed as larger molecules that the body determines to be foreign invaders. Much like a virus or bacteria, the immune system can respond to these small food-derived molecules with a concerted effort of immune attack. This leads to a range of symptoms that can be life threatening at one end of the spectrum to causing mild discomfort at the other end.
More well known of these reactions are the classic food allergy which results in an anaphylactic response, which is an immediate and potentially life-threatening response to the protein in an offending food. Causing swelling of lips and throat, breathing difficulties and skin rashes such as hives, these allergies (which occur in around 5% of the population) are best managed medically or with an epipen. In contrast, a food intolerance involves a slightly different component of the immune system and tends to trigger symptoms which are unpleasant, but not overtly or immediately dangerous.
Many food intolerance symptoms are often silent and sneaky and can be harder to pinpoint. Food intolerances are thought to affect significantly more people than allergies, with many remaining undiagnosed. Food intolerances are often found alongside other health issues and it is hard to establish cause from effect. Everything from autoimmune diseases and digestive issues to eczema, asthma and recurrent infections have been linked to food intolerance. Moreover, new understanding of the connection between the gut and the brain, has firmly pointed the finger at food intolerance being behind many cases of depression, anxiety, learning disorders and behavioural symptoms. New research has even shown how the complex flow on effects of food intolerance can lead to increased appetite and weight gain. Food sensitivities all have an inflammatory pathway as a common launching place. Once inflammation has set in, we get not only symptoms of pain and discomfort, but also dysfunction and disease. In some cases early symptoms of food intolerance are undetected. For instance, the brain has a lack of pain receptors, so inflammation and deterioration of the brain tissue is not felt and can be left undetected for a long time.
Diagnosing food intolerance can be as simple as removing a suspect food from the diet for a few weeks and observing for a change in symptoms. Sometimes, it is simpler and more accurate to do a food intolerance blood test, where antibody levels to different foods are tested. While a little expensive (around $250), I normally recommend these tests when the simple elimination processes have not been clear or revealing or when symptoms are more severe and a definitive result is sought more quickly.
From a naturopathic point of view, once a diagnosis of a problem food has been established, it is not a matter of simply avoiding the food. We also wish to support digestion, gut healing and repair to reduce the likelihood of future issues with foods and hopefully allow that person to eat that food again in the future! Stress is one of the biggest culprits in decreased digestive function, so a holistic approach always looks at managing stress and lifestyle. If you are suspicious that food intolerance may be playing a role in your health issues, then consider making an appointment for a comprehensive health assessment and I can help clarify things and create a individualised management plan for you.