The body can be subject to a variety of imbalances that may cause health problems. This section explores the most common ones and explains how to deal with them.
Food intolerance and exclusion diets
Food intolerance occurs when the body has difficulty digesting and using a certain food or group of foods. It is different from food allergy, in which a certain type of food causes an abnormal immune response, such as a rash or swelling. Intolerance, although not usually as dangerous as allergy, can still cause a great deal of discomfort.
Most of what we eat must be broken down by digestion before it can be absorbed via the gut wall into the blood. However, in some circumstances, incompletely digested food can leak through the wall of the digestive tract . This can provoke reactions leading to a range of symptoms and conditions. These include fatigue, abdominal bloating, headaches, migraine, irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease, colic, eczema and dermatitis, asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, sinusitis, ear infections, nasal congestion and excessive mucus formation. If a nutritional therapist suspects a food intolerance, the following tests can help with the diagnosis.
The prick test checks for an allergic response. It involves breaking the outer layer of the skin and introducing a tiny amount of the food or other substance (e.g. animal hair, pollen) to be tested. If the skin becomes inflamed, it is likely that you have a real allergy to the food.
IgG and IgE blood testing
Antibodies are proteins made by the immune system in response to proteins or other compounds that the body recognises as “foreign”. One type, the IgG antibodies, are thought to be involved in food reactions. IgG antibodies to specific foods can be detected using biochemical techniques, of which there are two basic types – RAST (radioallergosorbent test) and ELISA (enzyme-linked immunoserological assay). An IgE blood test can measure the levels of a specific form of antibody (Immunoglobulin E) in the blood and also check for allergic response.
Neither prick tests nor IG tests are particularly useful for forms of food intolerance, rather than allergy. Allergies involve the immune system, which recognises food molecules as foreign and attempts to label or attack them with IG antibodies. As food intolerances do not tend to involve an immune reaction, different tests are needed.
Cytotoxic and ALCAT tests
The cytotoxic test mixes white blood cells with individual food extracts and then ascertains which foods caused reactions in the cells. The ALCAT test (ALCAT stands for antigen leucocyte cellular antibody) is similar except that assessing the reaction of the white cells requires a sophisticated piece of laboratory equipment.
Practitioners of Chinese medicine believe that energy flows down channels known as meridians in the body. Electrodermal testing involves measuring the electrical current that flows through an acupuncture point on a meridian, then detecting any changes in the current as the body is challenged with individual foods. Extracts of those foods may be put in the same circuit as the subject being tested – if it changes the current there is a problem with the food.
However, in one reliable study this form of testing failed to identify genuine IgE-type acute food allergy. It has not been fully studied as a way of identifying food intolerance.
The elimination diet
Many practitioners of nutritional medicine regard this as the most accurate way of testing for food sensitivity. Once identified, problem foods can be eliminated for good. Many individuals whose health issues are linked with food intolerance find they experience a sudden improvement in their condition, along with increased energy, enhanced mental clarity and improved digestive function. Foods generally eliminated on such a diet include:
● Wheat (a very common problem food), found in breads, pasta, pastry, pizza, biscuits, cakes, wheat-based breakfast cereals, wheat crackers, breaded food, battered food and anything containing wheat flour.
● Milk, cheese and yoghurt.
● Foods or drinks that are consumed repeatedly, say on four or more days each week (the more often a food is eaten, the more likely it is to be a problem).
● Foods or drinks that are craved (cravings for a particular food can be a sign of intolerance to that food).
● Foods and drinks that are suspected because they seem to induce symptoms.
All likely problem foods are removed from the diet for two to three weeks. If a food sensitivity is at the root of the symptoms, and the problem food has been eliminated, improvement can generally be expected in this time. A good amount of a specific food should be eaten in the morning. Over the next few hours, look out for a return of the original symptoms. Other problems may include headache, itching, depression, fatigue, irritability and foggy thinking. A note should be made of any food that seems to bring on an unwanted reaction and it should be eliminated again from the diet. Foods that do not provoke a reaction
after breakfast should be eaten at lunch and dinner. If by the following morning there are still no symptoms, this food can be provisionally added to a list of “safe” foods.
For the next three days, the food should be eliminated again and a watchful eye kept for any symptoms that
suggest a food reaction. It is possible that the symptoms of a reaction may come on two or three days after a food or drink is consumed. If there are no symptoms after three days, it is likely that the food being tested is safe to eat. This process can be repeated for all the eliminated foods. In normal circumstances, it is wise to exclude problem foods for a month, although two or more months may be better. Abstaining from a food for a period of time can make the body more tolerant to it in the long term.
However, initial food reactions can be worse, not better, than before – a phenomenon that is referred to as
“hypersensitisation”. Care should be taken when reintroducing foods, particularly if the condition being
treated has an allergic component, such as asthma.When a food is re-introduced, it is best not to eat too much of it too frequently, as this can increase the risk of the original problem recurring.