Food intolerances are far more common and complicated than most people know. Reactions to food can show up in almost any body system and cause almost any symptom, up to 72 hours after eating the offending food. Numerous scientific studies link food reactions to chronic health conditions including fatigue, eczema, migraines, arthritis, menstrual pain, and irritable bowel syndrome. Even anxiety, depression, and ADHD have been linked to food reactions. Investing a small amount of time or money now in identifying problematic foods can be rewarding for a lifetime.
Healthy eating for you is not necessarily healthy eating for your colleagues or family members. Numerous Asian medical systems (some dating back more than 3000 years) understand quite clearly how to use diet to balance individual body types, regardless of genetic inheritance. Each food has qualities that may be used to balance the opposite quality in a person. For example, a person with a “yang deficiency” who often feels cold, such as someone with low thyroid function, may benefit from warming foods with a high “yang’ quality, such as onions, ginger, and cinnamon. Similarly, people in a cold Canadian climate would benefit from eating a diet rich in warming foods. In this way, foods may be thoroughly tailored to a particular individual’s state of health and environment. Asian dietary therapy is well presented in Paul Pitchford’s book: Healing with Whole Foods: Asian Traditions and Modern Nutrition.
From a Western medical perspective, food intolerances may be identified by food allergy testing or by dietary experimentation, a process in which suspect foods are eliminated and then reintroduced to the diet. A complete, individualized dietary plan can then be developed to promote health and prevent disease.
There are two main types of food allergies, each diagnosed with a different test. A “skin-prick” allergy test, which is performed by a traditional allergist, tests for foods that typically cause swelling or itching reactions in seconds to minutes. These allergies generally do not account for the symptoms of chronic disease listed above, which may manifest up to 72 hours after exposure. These allergies require a blood test available through specialized laboratories when ordered by a licensed health practitioner. Some insurance companies cover the cost of these tests, which generally range in price from $200 to $400. More information is available at www.usbiotek.com.
These allergy tests are useful for identifying foods that cause negative reactions by stimulating the immune system. These tests are not able to identify foods that cause reactions by other mechanisms. For example, “lactose intolerance”, in which a person experiences discomfort or pain after eating dairy products, is the result of an enzyme deficiency and not an immune response. Many chemicals in foods, including MSG, dyes, and preservatives, affect the body by routes other than the immune system, and would not necessarily show up on food allergy tests.
An elimination diet can identify most food reactions, regardless of the mechanism. Numerous suspect foods are eliminated for at least 2 to 6 weeks, and individually reintroduced in a particular sequence for at least 1 to 3 days each. This experiment is challenging, but possible for most people with the guidance of a knowledgeable healthcare practitioner. Your individual symptoms will guide a practitioner to the most likely food intolerances.
Naturopathic medicine is about applying old wisdom and new science to an individual. Experimenting with foods to identify the healthiest ones for you alone can have a tremendous impact on your quality of life, particularly if identified at a young age. For some people, this information is life-altering. Once you really start to believe that food is medicine… and that sometimes people take the wrong medicine, eating takes on a whole new significance.