Upset digestion could just as well signal food allergy, food intolerance, or even irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). “Proteins of any food source alert your immune system, which naturally reacts to the call with caution. After all, it is foreign matter in your system,” explains Dr. Kristóf Nékám, leading physician at Dr. Rose Private Hospital, a specialist in allergology, clinical pharmacology, and immunology. “The healthy reaction though is tolerance rather than defence, and helps ingesting those precious nutrients: dietary proteins.”
“Problem is when you have a tendency for allergic reaction, if you already had a few attacks, worse if you are a heavy smoker or drinker, if you prefer spicy food. Chances are that the lining of your digestive tract – the fine mucous membrane that coats the inside of your stomach and bowels – is damaged to some extent, upsetting the immune system in situ. Chronic infection, or a previous inflammation of the liver or pancreas might also be responsible for temporary allergic symptoms, albeit the unpleasant food allergy is transitory, it often subsides after a while without treatment,” says Dr. Nékám.
Food intolerance is not much different from allergy, only that it does not induce a fullscale, allergic immune reaction. Therefore allergy tests produce a negative results for food intolerance. You may be sensitive to caffeine, for example, when a single cup brings heavy palpitation; MSG, the flavour enhancer used in Chinese cuisine, may cause flushing, undulating blood pressure and headache. Or take lactose intolerance, the result of a missing enzyme that digests the carbohydrates in milk.
Intolerance test has been used for proving a specific immune reaction lately, so it is important to make clear, what exactly a lab test is aiming at.
Should the unpleasant symptoms persist, it is worth doing a complete diagnosis with a specialist, profiling previous and ongoing health issues, and finding exactly those nutrients and ingredients that are the root cause of the problem. Failing that, a blood test and skin probe might be of help. Some obstinate cases do not give in that easy, however.
“A thorough lab test of stomach and bowel tissue samples could precisely nail the problem, although there are no sure-fire methods. For the best result, you need an experienced specialist who combines various diagnostic techniques,” says Dr. Nékám. Having said that, a lot depends on the patient: a detailed nutritional logbook or food diary is the doctor’s best assistant. It is important not to switch diets in the meantime, and eat normal until the diagnosis is done.
Good to know
Dairy products cause the most common food allergy in Hungary. Egg comes in second, followed by soy and cereal proteins. Apple, peach, certain vegetables and tropical fruits are also high on the list of allergens.