Claire Lavelle: Why a food intolerance can make you more than just bloated

A lot has been written about how food intolerances cause uncomfortable and often embarrassing digestive issues. This week, however, an Australian health expert called Delia McCabe, who specialises in nutritional neuroscience, wrote an interesting piece in the Daily Mail (Nov 1st 2016) about how food intolerance affects not just our tummies but also our brains, leading to mood swings, foggy thinking and an inability to concentrate. For example, did you know that approximately 90 percent of the happiness hormone, serotonin, is made in the digestive tract? Not for nothing is our gut called our second brain, and it follows that if we’re struggling to digest something we’re intolerant to we produce insufficient serotonin, which causes our mood to suddenly crash.

I was particularly interested in this because, at the ripe old age of 42, I suddenly developed an intolerance to dairy. Without wishing to paint too graphic a picture, it became very obvious one day that the milk that had previously been fine in my tea was now having some rather adverse effects. I swapped to almond milk for a week to see what happened – and not only did the gurgling tummy and bloating disappear but so did the jitteriness I’d put down to too much caffeine, never suspecting the milk.

My physical symptoms, at least, were very common reactions, but signs that a food intolerance is affecting your brain can be less obvious. For instance, says McCabe, developing an obsession with a certain food to the point where you rearrange your daily routine to ensure you can eat it should ring warning bells, as should feeling slightly out of control once you’re actually eating what it is you so desire. Low mood, poor sleep, indecision and feeling emotionally wobbly are all things we put down to coping with the stresses of modern life, but could in fact be down to our brain chemistry reacting adversely to foods we are intolerant to.

So, what to do? The first thing is: don’t panic. It’s an understandable knee-jerk reaction to cut everything you suspect of triggering your symptoms out of your diet, but the likelihood is you’ll end up hungry, vitamin-deficient and none the wiser. I was lucky – my symptoms started first thing in the morning, straight after my first cuppa, so it was either milk or tea that was the bad guy. There are food intolerance testing companies that offer either home-testing kits or to analyse the results of a blood sample you send off, but these are expensive and margin for error is great – they test for something called IgG antibodies in the blood, which we all have, and these fluctuate daily according to what we’ve recently eaten – a positive IgG result to certain foods doesn’t necessarily mean you’re intolerant to them. An elimination diet is a far more accurate way of determining what foods might be causing your symptoms, but it’s important to get professional help before you do this – a nutritional therapist will take a full medical history and pay close attention to any lifestyle or environmental factors that might be inadvertently playing a part. And as well as removing the foods that cause the reactions, it’s important to add the right nutrients to the diet, such as essential fatty acids and prebiotics. ‘Your diet’s so boring,’ said my nutritionist friend, when I talked her through what I ate on a daily basis. She explained that my ‘mono’ diet was doing me no favours whatsoever, because the gut needs a variety of foods to maintain a healthy microbiome (the collection of microbes that live mainly in our large intestine and help to both digest our food and boost our immune system). Variety is important to ensure you get a good mix of phytochemicals (the protective compounds found in plants) and vitamins and minerals. So, stick with the healthy stuff but switch it up every now and then to keep your body in the pink and your gut bacteria happy. And with any luck, those debilitating symptoms will be a thing of the past.

– Claire Lavelle is a guest blogger for Bryn Tanat Wellness. She has been a health and wellbeing journalist for more than 20 years. Most recently deputy editor at Healthy magazine, she is now freelance and writes for national magazines and newspapers.