Is a food intolerance causing you difficulties?

Feeling under the weather, maybe your diet is to blame.

Written by Sarah Bermingham


Having regularly suffered migraines and stomach complaints for almost nine years without any clear indication of the cause, clarity raised its head for me with most unfortunate timing: on a sunny Easter Saturday, with a stash of chocolate eggs ready to be indulged, I was told I was lactose intolerant.

In hindsight, several signs had shown: I’d had regular colds and chest infections, often stated as a symptom of lactose intolerance in young children, while a trend had also developed whereby I’d have to be taken home from school with a migraine just a few hours after drinking a small carton of milk.

As well as being treated by my GP, I had attended an array of medical professionals over the years in search of a conclusive explanation as to the cause of these annoyances. No such answers had been forthcoming, however, until a light was shone on how some of the foods I loved were affecting me.

Food intolerances can still be viewed with scepticism by some established medical professionals however, information published by the UK’s National Health Service indicates they are beginning to gain official recognition and visibility. While it’s undoubtedly important that any potential underlying medical condition is tested for when a patient experiences recurring issues when these can be ruled out perhaps it’s just a matter that certain foods don’t agree with that patient’s bodily systems.

The two terms are frequently used interchangeably, however, a food allergy differs from a food intolerance in so far as an allergic reaction can be life-threatening and can come on very suddenly. This is not usually the case with reactions of intolerance, which generally affect just the body’s digestive system, whereas an allergy causes an immune system reaction that affects numerous organs in the body.
Common food intolerances include to yeast, wheat, gluten, dairy and from a drinks perspective, to alcohol. Intolerances often run in families, while often those with sensitive digestive systems find they experience many simultaneously.  

Excluding dairy from my diet at a young age may have ended my pattern of regular migraines and stomach complaints. In the years that followed, I became frequently bloated and fatigued, while regular colds also hinted towards a weakened immune system. Follow-up visits to food allergy testing services revealed these feelings were likely the result of further intolerances, this time to yeast, gluten and wheat.

Before I attended those allergy-testing services, I had an idea that my symptoms may be brought on by food but it was very difficult to pinpoint the aggravating food type. The only true way of testing whether a food is triggering unwanted symptoms is to try excluding it from your diet for some time. Fortunately for me, once my body had cleared itself of the residue of these foods in my system, my symptoms appeared to disappear almost instantly.

If this isn’t the case when you try an exclusion diet, it’s worth exploring whether your difficulties may be the result of other digestive disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome or coeliac disease, as these can produce similar symptoms and thus be hard to tell apart from food intolerances at first.

When you do exclude a food from your diet, whether out of choice or lack thereof, it’s important to ensure you don’t suffer further as a result of missing out on an essential nutrient. This was especially important for me in adapting to a dairy-free diet at a young age. To ensure I maintained a strong calcium intake, I began taking a supplement as I learnt to enjoy rice milk, soya yoghurts, goats’ cheese and sorbet.

It can be difficult to strictly adhere to a diet without dairy, yeast, gluten or wheat but luckily diet-proof foods, particularly gluten-free, have become something of a foodie phenomenon recently. They’re a hit with artisan food producers, who are busy making delicious treats everyone can enjoy, while several supermarkets and even convenience stores now stock their own range of gluten, wheat and dairy-free biscuits, cereals, pasta, yoghurts, flour and even crisps and chocolate.

It’s recommended that you visit your GP first if you believe you may be experiencing symptoms as a result of a food intolerance, while further information can also be accessed on the websites of the HSE and NHS.

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