Vivian Grisogono


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Clinical experience has convinced me and many others that certain symptoms in the human body can be caused by adverse reactions to foods, drinks, medicines or other substances which we ingest.

Not that long ago, many, perhaps most doctors rejected the idea that food and drink could cause or contribute to symptoms in patients. Now very many accept it. There is also much more public awareness of the possible harmful effects of foods and drinks on the body systems.

What is food intolerance?

Food intolerance is a bit like an allergy, in that there is an unpleasant physical reaction in the body triggered by food or drink. But it is different from allergy, because it is rarely constant. An allergy can be lifelong, and is always specific. The person is very aware of what triggers the allergy, and what the allergic reaction will be. Also, allergies can be life-threatening, for instance if a person is allergic to peanuts or bee-stings, whereas food intolerance reactions are almost never that serious. The symptoms of food intolerance can be sudden or more gradual, disabling, severe or minor. The problem may be short-lived or longer-lasting, but rarely permanent.

Food intolerance can be one of several factors which occur simultaneously, coinciding with other problems, injuries or illnesses, and it can aggravate symptoms which have arisen through other causes. In my experience, food intolerance is often a factor in conditions such as osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis and problems associated with high levels of stress, such as reflex sympathetic dystrophy.

Food intolerance can cause various reactions, and the mechanisms which cause them probably differ according to the type of food, chemical change and chain of reactions involved. In practical terms, the exact mechanisms which occur are less important than identifying that intolerance is the cause of the symptoms. Because the good news is that once food intolerance has been identified as a problem, it can be cured, and much more simply than most allergies at that. 

What symptoms does food intolerance cause?

Food intolerance can cause various symptoms. Hyperactivity in children, headaches, joint pain, joint stiffness, swellings, skin reactions, digestive problems and body temperature changes are among the symptoms that can be caused by food intolerance.

If you get a headache caused by a food intolerance trigger, it can start with a very slight ache and build up to an excruciating throbbing pain or migraine over the next few hours, only to disappear completely and suddenly, usually within about 12 to 24 hours of the symptoms starting.

Joint reactions tend to come on very quickly. You may suffer a sudden pain, a stiffness as though a tight bandage is being drawn around the joint, or a hot, perhaps reddened swelling. If the reaction happens more slowly, you may only feel a slight stiffness at first, or notice a tightness or puffiness in the joint.

Pain can occur in almost any part of the body, including the neck and shoulder girdle region. Intolerance reactions most commonly affect one knee, or any of the small joints in one or both hands or feet. 

Your skin, especially over your face, may be affected by a rash, blotchiness or hot shiny areas.  

Your digestion may be upset, and you may suffer from bloating, wind, diarrhoea and/or vomiting. 

Food intolerance can play a part in dysmenorrhoea (very heavy, painful periods) in women. 

Hyperactivity and antisocial behaviour in children have been increasingly linked to food intolerance reactions.

Gout can be considered a type of food intolerance. It is easier to identify than other types, because the uric acid which builds up in the blood can be identified. People traditionally associated gout with rich, heavy foods and drinks like port and strawberries, but in fact it can be triggered in individuals by almost anything.

One could also argue that fluctuations in blood sugar levels related to food are a type of food intolerance. Taking in sweet foods or drinks or stimulants of any kind (such as caffeine) on an empty stomach causes a sudden rise in your blood sugar level, which can trigger an immediate fall. This is called ‘reactive hypoglycaemia’. When it happens, you can become disorientated, light-headed, dizzy or faint. Reactive hypoglycaemia has been identified as the cause of some serious accidents, after long distance lorry drivers have drunk sweet tea and eaten a sugary bun instead of having a proper meal. This is why it is unwise to use drinks based on caffeine and sugar to keep awake on long drives. It’s much better and safer to drink plain water, have rest breaks, and eat proper meals.

Reactive hypoglycaemia can also bring on sudden bouts of abnormal sweating, especially in middle-aged women going through the menopause. The sweating is often confused with the hot flushes normally associated with the change. One way to tell the difference is to identify whether the sweating is happening soon after ingesting a potentially irritant type of food or drink. In the case of night sweats, menopausal sweating usually wakes you up, whereas if you wake up and then break out into a sweat, it is more likely that a drop in blood sugar is the cause.

Babies and food intolerance

If your baby cries after feeding, has tightness and tension over the stomach region and thrashes about, he or she may be having trouble digesting. The baby’s digestive system is extremely sensitive. Don’t take for granted that it can cope with everything it receives from the earliest stage. If you are feeding the baby formula milk, you may need to change the brand, preferably choosing an organic product. If it is breast milk, the problem may be what the mother is eating. It is well worth changing your diet, according to your baby’s reactions. Make sure what you eat is bland and nutritious, and drink plenty of plain water. Avoid junk food, prepared meals, fizzy drinks, caffeine and alcohol. Include things like porridge, fresh fruit and vegetables. Watch for signs of bloating or flatulence in yourself. Cabbage, for instance, can cause flatulence, but cooking it with a tiny amount of fresh fennel can reduce this. Anything which you cannot digest easily is likely to cause similar problems in your baby. If you can create a good pattern of digestion in your baby by changing his or her feed or your own pattern of eating, your baby will be much calmer in just a few days.

How is food intolerance diagnosed?

Because food intolerance reactions are variable, they are not as easy to identify as true allergies. There are no universally accepted tests for food intolerance, although some tests are available, including the homeopathic Quantum Med Xxeroid Biofeedback computer test, Vega testing, kinesiological testing or detailed blood tests. However, tests are not normally needed.

Recognition of the problem is based on detective work, through careful analysis of the patient’s symptoms, identifying cause and effects, and then eliminating possible trigger substances.

The first step is to establish that the symptoms could be those of food intolerance, and are not fully explained by other possible causes. As you explain what your problem is, the practitioner will be thinking of all the possible causes of the symptoms you describe. If necessary, tests will be organized to exclude infections, rheumatic conditions or illnesses.

The second step is to ascertain that the symptoms are indeed happening in relation to eating or drinking. Food intolerance reactions usually happen within an hour or two after you have ingested the irritant substance, making cause and effect fairly easy to establish. However, in the case of wheat the reaction can be delayed, even by a day or two, so it is harder to pin down the relationship.

The third step is to eliminate any foods or drinks which are suspected as being part of the problem, and to assess whether  the symptoms are reduced by doing so.

Key questions are:
1. how did the symptoms start?
2. what is the pattern of the symptoms?

You can help the process greatly by keeping a diary of your symptoms in relation to your dietary intake, activities and perhaps emotional factors like stress or anger.

Once food intolerance has been positively identified as the whole or partial cause of your problem, you are well on the way to the solution.

Which substances cause intolerance reactions?

So-called “junk” foods and drinks, which are mainly artificially concocted and have little or no nutritional value, have been particularly demonized as responsible for adverse reactions such as hyperactivity in children. Preservatives and colourants come high on the list of possible causes of intolerance reactions.

However, the truth is that anyone can become intolerant to almost any type of food or drink. Eating a supposedly “healthy” diet rather than junk food does not necessarily prevent food intolerance reactions. They can happen suddenly in relation to foods or drinks which you  normally take without any problem. If you suddenly eat a lot of a particular food, such as seasonal fruit, you may become intolerant to it after a certain period. You may be intolerant to things you do not like, or to things you find delicious. One of my patients turned out to be intolerant to lettuce, which she ate every day because she perceived it as healthy, even though she disliked it. Another discovered, through a long process of analysis and elimination of suspect foods, that he was allergic to a famous brand of sparkling water, which he drank frequently as a specially healthy treat after sport.

That said, there are foods which have been more commonly identified with intolerance reactions than most. Apart from preservatives and colorants, the most common irritants include wheat, dairy products, citric fruits, tomatoes, tomato sauce or paste, spicy foods (especially curries), shellfish, pork (especially bacon), chocolate, fruit juices, fizzy drinks (including the so-called ‘diet’ versions and fizzy water), coffee, tea, and alcoholic drinks. Some people react after eating beef or veal, although they may be able to eat “organic” meats. 

What causes food intolerance reactions?

Given that it’s not only junk food and drink which cause problems, and that you can become intolerant to perfectly healthy foods which you eat regularly, it follows that other factors can play a part in food intolerance. It is often possible to identify that your body systems have become more sensitive. This can happen through stress, over-tiredness, injury, illness or hormonal changes. It is fairly common for food intolerance reactions to come on after an operation on part of the body, such as a knee, hip or foot. When this happens, it is a sign that you are very anxious about the operation, or possibly angry about some aspect of the injury or treatment.

Antibiotics can have the effect of weakening the immune system and increasing your sensitivity, if you don’t take steps to redress the balance. Certain medicines taken long-term can also make you more vulnerable to intolerance reactions, and in some cases you may be or become intolerant to the medicines themselves. Drugs which have a direct action on the hormonal systems are thought to contribute to intolerance reactions, such as the contraceptive pill, Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) and medicines to control the thyroid gland. Reactions may happen when you start to take the drug, or later on if you change the dosage, type or brand. In some cases of long-term use, reactions start to occur after several years, almost as though the body is saying it is time to stop taking this medicine.

Curing food intolerance

Hyperactivity and antisocial behavior in children can often be reduced by eliminating or at least reducing their intake of junk foods and fizzy drinks. In both the United States and the United Kingdom, schools which have introduced healthier eating habits have reported greatly improved standards of behaviour, and a reduced need for calming drugs like Ritolin.

General guidelines for curing or controlling food intolerance include:

         *eliminate or reduce any foods or drinks you suspect of causing problems.

         *avoid known triggers, especially spicy foods, chocolate, convenience foods, fruit juices, fizzy drinks, coffee, tea and alcohol.

         *eliminate food additives, preservatives, flavourings and colourants.

         *eat regular, well-balanced meals, preferably using organic foodstuffs, including plenty of green vegetables.

         *vary your intake, by trying to avoid having the same things more than once in every four days or so.

         *drink plenty of water throughout each day.

         *reduce your stress levels, especially by resting and relaxing during the day whenever you can. 

Once you are clear of any food intolerance reactions, which can take from a few days up to several months depending on the individual case, you may be able to reintroduce any eliminated foods and drinks into your diet, but take care to avoid having them in excessive amounts or too frequently. Food additives should be avoided permanently, especially in children’s diets.

If you need help in organizing your diet to avoid food intolerance reactions, try consulting a professional dietician or nutritionist.

Caution: misdiagnosis, missed diagnosis

If there is any possibility that your symptoms have other causes, do not assume that they are caused by food intolerance, just because they more or less fit the description. If in doubt, ask your doctor or practitioner for help. But, be warned: if you consult a practitioner who is not familiar with food intolerance, symptoms in your joints might be misleadingly identified as “arthritis”, and the possibility of food intolerance is missed or ignored. The diagnosis of “arthritis” can be frightening, causing fears about long-term disability and the prospect of painful joint replacement surgery. These fears can exacerbate and prolong the effects of the food intolerance by adding to your stress levels. 

Even more problems are created by the practitioner who scoffs at the idea of food intolerance if you mention it. This can shake your confidence, and make you wonder whom to trust. It can make you feel that your symptoms are insoluble.

Treatment choices

Painkillers and anti-inflammatory drugs are often the first treatments offered by medical practitioners or chosen by patients themselves. Sadly, these do not cure problems caused by food intolerance, and in some cases the side-effects in the digestive system can make the situation worse. Added to which, anti-inflammatory drugs should be used sparingly because of their known risk of affecting the heart. There are specific drugs which can help in defined situations, the best example being gout, which in most cases can be controlled by taking a daily preventive medicine. Many patients choose to do this for life in order to continue enjoying the foods which would otherwise trigger a gout attack. This is not something I recommend, as every drug taken long-term might eventually affect the body systems adversely. It is a matter  of free choice, and if you make the decision knowing what your options are, then it is right for you.

Dealing with food intolerance is relatively simple, once cause and effect have been identified. To my mind, curing it by altering your diet is the logical course of action.

© Vivian Grisogono 2006