Most of us have a friend who would rather chop off their right hand than add milk to their tea. Maybe it is you who wouldn’t force down a slice of toast even if your life depended on it? For many, refusing bread and milk is not just a
fashion statement but the reality of living with a food intolerance.
It is nice to see the gluten-and lactose free aisles in mainstream supermarkets expand, but it is also a sign of our times. Food intolerances are on the rise, with wheat and dairy being the most common offenders. Reactions to these foods can ambush you at any point in your life, often going undiagnosed for months. Allergies are much easier to spot. A swollen tongue, itchy eyes and difficulty in breathing are hard to ignore if they occur seconds after eating a peanut. Dull headaches, lack of concentration and low energy levels, on the other hand, would not be the first symptoms you’d associate with an intolerance to food.
At the base of a reaction to certain foods often lie a dysfunctional digestive system, a so-called leaky gut and a confused immune system. The cells lining your small intestine should sit very close together, only allowing nutrients to pass and providing a firm barrier against larger particles and unwanted substances. Alcohol, medication, stress and poor digestion, which are all part of a typical western lifestyle, can cause these cells to move further apart. The gut can become ‘leaky’, allowing undigested food particles to migrate into your bloodstream. Immune cells patrolling your blood gather to investigate and more often than not decide to attack the stranger on the block, cue food intolerance. Some cheeky food particles, however, manage to evade the grip of your defensive system and travel all the way to your brain. They squeeze through your blood-brain barrier and can trigger symptoms such as dull headaches, migraine-like episodes, a foggy head and overall tiredness.
Proteins such as gluten and casein (unavoidable in a typical ‘wheat and dairy’ diet) are frequently responsible for these problems. Our diet is saturated with these staple ingredients, which are notoriously hard to digest in the first place. In addition to irritating your digestive system and triggering a food intolerance, a simple and innocuous snack such as a cheese sandwich may have a much darker side to it as well. Gluten and casein proteins that are allowed to penetrate the brain are often mistaken for opioid compounds by your body. And the best way to get some opioids into your system is through a healthy dose of morphine or heroin! It is not hard to imagine that such foods can cause powerful addictions and even bring about mind-altering effects.
Such a reaction to normally harmless foods is, in most cases, preceded by some sort of trauma to your digestive system. This might have been food poisoning, a large dose of antibiotics, long-term use of other medications or just a firm commitment to an overload of buttery toast and milky coffee. As is often the case, the smallest things can have the biggest impact and in the case of a food intolerance it is your gut bacteria. These little lifesavers actively digest protein, nourish your gut cells with short-chain fatty acids and protect your gut lining from damage and ‘leakiness’. In addition, they make sure that your immune system turns a blind eye to the odd food particle in your bloodstream and instead concentrates on more important things such as viruses and unfriendly bacteria! Medication and antibiotics eradicate most friendly organisms and their fragile nature means that most of us walk this earth as hosts to a zoo of not-so-friendly pe[s]ts.
With this quite complicated interplay between foods, digestion, gut health and immune reactions, food intolerances will not disappear overnight, but with the right strategy there is a very good chance of returning to normal.
In any case, the first step should be to identify any offending foods and to exclude them from your diet for the foreseeable future. This will give your insides a rest and pave the way for healing and recovery. Secondly, you should concentrate on optimising your digestion and healing your gut wall, pushing your cells closer together again. Include foods like apple cider vinegar, coconut milk and a digestive enzyme to break down your meals efficiently. Where there is a food intolerance, there is often inflammation as well, caused by an over-reactive immune system. There is no better way to combat this inflammation than a strong dose of fish oil. Aim for 1 to 2 grams a day with as much EPA as you can find. A good quality probiotic will support your healing process and retrain your immune system to take appropriate measures against threats.
Substances such as glutamine, N-acetyl glucosamine, zinc and vitamins A and E are often found in supplements to promote gut healing and are incredibly effective in patching up a leaky gut. After 6 to 9 months of recuperation, you should be able to slowly reintroduce problematic foods in small amounts. It is probably better to stay away from a bowl of pasta with cheese sauce but the odd bit of wheat and dairy should be able to go down a treat!