It is very important to differentiate food intolerances from food allergies, in order to treat them effectively, says naturopath Nina Stephenson.

A food intolerance is an adverse reaction to a food, or component of, a food, that doesn't involve the immune system, as in food allergies and anaphylaxis. Unlike allergies, food intolerance reactions take longer to manifest and are related to how much of the food you ate; they are also difficult to define, as, unlike allergies, they cannot be identified with blood or skin tests. Dairy and wheat used to be the most common culprits I saw in clinical practice; however, food colourings and flavourings now come a close second.

Why are food intolerances increasing? One could speculate that our digestive systems simply don’t have the capacity to break down and absorb the huge plethora of artificial food chemicals that exist today. According to the Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy, there are several main known causes of food intolerance:
*Metabolic and enzymatic deficiencies, such as lactase, where the small intestine doesn’t produce enough, leading to a decreased ability digest lactose – the sugar found in dairy products.
*Digestive malabsorption – insufficient production of digestive enzymes or hydrochloric acid in the digestive tract prevent the body from breaking down and absorbing food efficiently, causing reactions such as wind, bloating, irritable bowel.
*Pharmacological reactions to natural food chemicals such as amines (found in fish, cheese, wine, chocolate, some meats, bananas) or salicylates (in many fruits, vegetables, nuts, herbs, spices, jams, honey, yeast extracts, tea, coffee, juices, beer, wines) and to man-made chemicals such as food colourings, flavourings (eg. MSG), preservatives and additives. Natural or man-made chemicals can cause drug-like side effects in hyper-sensitive individuals.
*Toxic reactions, such as vomiting and diarrhoea from eating chickpeas or kidney beans that have not been cooked sufficiently as they contain aflatoxins, or from scromboid fish toxin where fish has gone past its use-by date and starts to break down, producing histamine that causes rashes, stomach pain and vomiting.
*Psychological reactions – foods you emotionally connect with a past trauma.
*Repetitively consuming the same foods is a surefire way to develop an intolerance.

Signs and symptoms

Digestive symptoms are most common. Some people experience ear-nose-throat symptoms, such as sneezing, runny nose, itchy nose, itching inside the ears and roof of mouth. Less common are flushed face, night sweats, fatigue, under-eye dark circles, and sometimes joint pain.

The only way to define food intolerances is to do an elimination diet, or a short fast if you are a healthy adult, and gradually reintroduce different foods, noting any reactions. There are many online resources available for elimination diets, as well as lists of salicylate- and amine-containing foods to avoid. Once you’ve identified which foods/chemicals you’re sensitive to, a period of abstaining completely from them can help build tolerance again and relieve symptoms. This doesn’t mean you have to live a life devoid of your favourite foods as intolerances are dose-dependent. Your mission is identify your tolerance levels and eat within your limits. Healthy eating with the seasons and rotating your diet helps tremendously. Organic fresh wholefoods avoids exposure to chemicals.

Hydrochloric acid deficiency (betaine hydrochloride, pepsin): For malabsorption symptoms: indigestion, burping, heartburn, halitosis, bloating immediately after eating, flatulence. 1 tablet just before a meal. Digestive enzymes (bromelain, papain, pancreatin, lipase, amylase, trypsin): For flatulence, cramping, IBS. 1 tablet with each meal. Always consult a fully qualified naturopath or nutritionist for practitioner strength, case-appropriate supplementation. And don't underestimate the power of herbal teas. The carminative and bitter properties of licorice, fennel, chamomile and ginger ease digestive cramping and wind. Dandelion soothes any reactions to fatty foods.

Nina Stephenson BHSc is a naturopath and nutritionist.