Is a food intolerance the root cause of your IBS? Or is this just another myth?

The difference between a food allergy and food intolerance

Food allergies involve the immune system, where the body mistakenly tags specific food proteins as harmful. This then will trigger your body’s defense system, which can then result in severe symptoms, typically more severe than food intolerance. Food allergy symptoms can result in difficulty breathing, a racing heart, skin, rashes, and digestive issues. Symptoms of food allergy usually start within minutes of exposure to the trigger food and must occur within 2 hours to classify as an IgE‐mediated response.

Food intolerance does NOT involve your immune system –  there is no allergic reaction, and it’s never life treating. Symptoms can happen gradually, often a few hours after eating the problem food. Food intolerances are far more common than food allergies, and these can significantly impact your quality of life, as well as your relationship with food.

Food allergies are less common and should be diagnosed by a qualified clinician. The most common food allergens we have now are cow’s milk, egg, wheat, soy, nuts, seeds, and fish, however, most of these are outgrown in early childhood.  Another type of hypersensitivity is a coeliac disease. It is not actually classed as an allergy, but an autoimmune condition.

Non-celiac gluten/wheat sensitivity

This is thought to be an immune-mediated reaction to gluten or to other components of wheat (eg, fructans or amylase trypsin inhibitors) with intestinal and extraintestinal symptoms. These improve once gluten and/or wheat is eliminated from the diet, and after a diagnosis of coeliac disease, and wheat allergy have been excluded with appropriate testing.

Why food intolerance testing is INVALID

Food intolerance testing can lead to not only nutritional deficiencies but high levels of anxiety and eating disorders.  I understand why it is tempting to go for tests claiming to tell you exactly what is causing your gut symptoms, and sometimes we just want answers. However, there is NO blood, breath, or stool test that can accurately determine food intolerances. All food intolerance tests are invalid, apart from lactose. While it is interesting and exciting we are heading towards a more personalised approach to nutrition, but we are not quite there yet. Please save your money for now on all these expensive tests!

The real cause of my IBS was STRESS!

I’ve personally suffered from IBS for many years, and it took me years to get to the bottom of my IBS. I was suffering from consistent bloating, constipation and various other issues. I was at the time convinced it was down to the food I was eating. I tried every diet under the sun and cut various unnecessary foods out of my diet, but nothing worked. I soon then realised there was a deeper issue going on with my health. I then saw various different professionals, to begin with, and nothing seemed to help.

I firstly saw a Nutritional Therapist, while I was actually studying to become one myself, as I thought I needed some guidance regarding my issues. We did a comprehensive stool test, and she said I had some pathogenic bacteria in my gut, and she put me oregano supplements to kill off the bad bacteria. I can’t say I ever felt any better, so I went to see someone else.

I went to see a functional medicine practitioner, who told me I had SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth), from a breath test I had done. Little did I know that breath testing IS NOT deemed very accurate! This practitioner also told me to do another comprehensive stool test, which basically described that I had ‘gut dysbiosis’, known as an imbalance of good and bad bacteria in the gut, and I also had various parasites detected. I took many supplements and antimicrobials to clear everything up……still I felt no better. At the time I was training 5 times a week with my running club, I was tired, drained, I felt like I had no energy at all, I was just still constantly bloated. I also had a history of an eating disorder, which I had for 6 years, so I was convinced that this had contributed towards my IBS.

Finally, I was referred for some tests with a gastroenterologist, who detected I had slow transit constipation from an X-ray I had done, hence why I was bloated all the time, and tired! He also explained with eating disorders you will experience some nerve damage in the gut. He gave me two routes I could go down, I could take a prokinetic drug, which works on 5HTP receptors In the gut (a receptor for serotonin, which helps improve contraction of the muscles in the gut), in order to help improve motility or take a laxative. He also told me to look into gut hypnotherapy, and look into research on the gut, and the vagus nerve. He explained I had a functional gut disorder, which is very common amongst athletes, and especially with people who have type-A personalities like myself. So basically I had re-wire my gut-brain axis (this is a biochemical signal that takes place between the GI tract and the central nervous system).

The prokinetic drug I was given, along with the Low Fodmap diet (involves cutting out and then reintroducing certain types of fermentable carbohydrates) tailored towards my needs, worked extremely well for me. I’ve unfortunately had to stop training for the time being until my IBS calms down, and I have now incorporated meditation, and gut-derived yoga flows every morning. Meditation helps to stimulate your vagus nerve and allows you to enter a parasympathetic state, which helps to improve digestion. My bloating has dramatically reduced, along with my constipation issues.

What I have learned about myself from my experience

All I had to do was listen to the body, reduce the stress, and learn to chew my food properly. No expensive tests, cutting out unnecessary foods/ supplements were necessary, and they certainly didn’t help me!

 I want you all to take away 5 main points from this post. If you’re experiencing digestive issues firstly think about:

  1. How you are eating your food? Are you eating and chewing your food slowly?
  2. Are you stressed? Stress can inhibit your digestion!
  3. Are you an athlete suffering from IBS? Are you pushing your body too far?
  4. If you’re suffering from gut issues and suspect you might be reacting to certain foods, speak to your GP first, before eliminating certain foods! Eliminating unnecessary foods can lead to an unhealthy relationship with food and nutritional deficiencies!
  5. Also, consider ruling out the coeliac disease with a blood test.

Jenny Tomei

Award winning personal trainer and nutritional therapist, featured in Guardian, Healthy Living and Natural Health magazine.

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