Food Allergies, Intolerances & Sensitivities
"We must never forget that what the patient takes beyond his ability to digest does harm." ~ Samuel Gee, MD
Good food translates to good health, this is common wisdom. However, sometimes even good whole foods can make a person sick. When fresh strawberries cause hives, a glass of milk causes stomach cramps and diarrhea, or daily bread products cause fatigue and bloating, then it is time to talk to your health care provider to determine whether an ordinary food may be causing your health problems.
At Juniper Family Health, our naturopaths offer lab testing and other methods to determine food allergies, intolerances, sensitivities and celiac disease. Based on your symptoms, our naturopathic doctors can recommend which method would be best for you.
What’s the difference between food allergies, intolerances, and sensitivities?
Food allergies are immune reactions that cause immediate and sometimes life-threatening reactions in the body. Breathing difficulties, skin eruptions such as hives, digestive problems and even anaphylaxis are common food allergy reactions.
Food intolerances and sensitivities are not life-threatening and are delayed reactions that contribute to chronic health concerns. These reactions are typically divided further into digestive and immune concerns.
Food intolerances are digestive in origin and typically refer to the inability of the body to break down a particular food. Food intolerance symptoms often include abdominal cramping, bloating, and diarrhea, although symptoms can become more diverse and serious if the overall health of the gastrointestinal system deteriorates from regular consumption of the offending foods. A well-known example of food intolerance is lactose intolerance, where digestion of milk sugar in dairy is impaired.
Food sensitivities are immune reactions which trigger delayed reactions in the body. Symptoms take hours or days to develop, making it difficult to determine the culprit food. With food sensitivities, symptoms are incredibly individual and each person will manifest them differently. However, common food sensitivity symptoms include fatigue, digestive disturbances, chronic skin rashes, weight gain, headaches, joint pain, mood and memory disturbances, and behavioural problems.
Can you develop food intolerances and sensitivities later on in life?
Food intolerances and sensitivities can develop at any point in life. A person who has never had any problems with food before may develop reactions to food later in life. Food intolerances and sensitivities can be triggered by many different factors. These factors include overconsumption of a particular food, genetic predisposition, poor digestion, environmental factors, and stress.
How can I find out if I have food allergies, intolerances or sensitivities?
An allergist typically tests for food allergies, however naturopathic doctors are also licensed to test for these immediate immune reactions. To get an appointment with an allergist you will need a referral from your family doctor. An allergist will test for food allergies through a scratch test or blood test, which is covered through MSP. A Naturopathic Doctor, on the other hand, only uses blood testing for food allergies, which may be covered through your extended health insurance.
Naturopathic doctors are the go-to health care providers for assessment of food intolerances and food sensitivities. Several methods are used to determine these types of food reactions at our clinic, most notably:
Food Sensitivity Testing: This test measures IgG and/or IgA antibodies, a class of immune proteins involved in delayed food reactions. The test involves a finger prick or blood draw. Once a blood sample is taken, it is sent to the lab for testing, and your naturopathic doctor will receive your results within 2-3 weeks. At this time you will be called to book a follow-up visit with your ND to discuss your results. This is a great option for individuals who are unable to commit to an elimination-challenge diet (discussed below) and for children.
Elimination-Challenge Diet: This method is the gold standard within the medical community for determining food intolerances and sensitivities. It involves eliminating potentially reactive foods for a period of time, typically for 4 weeks or occasionally longer, followed by a reintroduction period. An elimination-challenge diet is not only an excellent diagnostic tool, but a great opportunity to reduce inflammation, heal the gut, lose weight and learn the subtleties of how the food you eat impacts your health.
What happens after I get my food sensitivity results?
If you test positive for any food, taking those reactive foods out of your diet for 3-6 months is recommended. Detailed handouts are given on alternatives to your food sensitivities to ensure that proper nutrition is maintained. Gut healing supplements are also often recommended at this time.
Over time it is common that the foods that a person was once sensitive to become less reactive. At the 3-6 month mark, re-introduction of these foods will determine whether or not you will need to continue avoiding them, or are able to eat these foods in small amounts. This is different from a food allergy, where the offending food will have to be avoided long term (sometimes indefinitely).
What about celiac disease?
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder caused by eating gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, rye, spelt, and kamut. The immune reaction caused by consuming gluten-containing foods produces significant inflammation, damaging the small intestine and leading to malabsorption of nutrients. Common signs and symptoms of celiac disease include abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea, anemia, and weight loss. However, some individuals do not experience these classical symptoms, and may instead have loss of dental enamel, loss of bone density, headaches and fatigue, joint pain, numbness and tingling, an itchy blistery skin rash (dermatitis herpetiformis), or additional autoimmune disorders. In children, malabsorption from celiac disease can affect growth and development.
Your naturopathic doctor or family doctor can test you for celiac disease. The blood test ordered is called tissue transglutaminase (tTG). If you have a positive tTG test, your doctor may refer you for a small intestinal biopsy to confirm the disease. The management of celiac disease involves strict life-long avoidance of gluten, and nutritional supplementation to heal the damaged intestinal lining.