April is Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) awareness month – and an estimated up to a quarter of the UK population suffers from the uncomfortable and sometimes embarrassing condition at some time in their lives.
It can be caused by a variety of issues, from stress to food intolerances - but if you're struggling with a dodgy tum, finding out the root is the first step to managing the symptoms.
One of the first things to check is if you are intolerant to anything you're eating. Though gluten and diary are popular culprits (and a bit of a fashionable diet trend right now), they're not the only foods people have issues digesting.
So we spoke to Dr Hilary Jones to find out more about food intolerance, and what you can do.
What Are The Main Symptoms Of Food Intolerance?
DHJ: Food intolerance can cause a whole range of different symptoms. These include digestive issues such as bloating and other bowl problems, but also skin issues including eczema and acne, and migraines and headaches. Joint pain, low mood and respiratory issues can also be caused by food intolerance.
Unlike an allergy, a food intolerance symptom can take up to three days to show making it difficult to determine exactly which food is the problem.
Why Are We Intolerant To Certain Foods?
DHJ: Everyone has their own individual ‘food fingerprint. An ingredient that is fine for one person can cause uncomfortable symptoms for others. While gluten and dairy intolerances tend to be the most talked about, you can actually be intolerant to any food or drink ingredient. That's why it is so important to go to a doctor or to take a food intolerance test from a reputable company such as York Test, before giving up any ingredient.
What’s The Difference Between A Food Intolerance And An Allergy?
While only two per cent of the population are thought to suffer from a food allergy, up to 45 per cent could be suffering from a food intolerance.
During an allergic reaction the body’s immune system believes it is being invaded and produces IgE (Immunoglobulin E) antibodies to fight off the food and drink ingredient it mistakenly considers to be harmful.
This triggers an inflammatory response that can vary from very mild to severe and can affect one or more systems in the body. In extreme cases, the immune system triggers a response throughout the whole body, resulting in anaphylaxis, which is potentially fatal.
Unlike allergy, food intolerance usually involves a delayed biological reaction which, although uncomfortable and unpleasant, is not life threatening. Food intolerance is far more common in the UK population.
Is Gluten Bad For Me And Should I Cut It Out Of My Diet?
DHJ: Gluten is a protein composite found in wheat and similar grains including barley and rye.
Most people enjoy these cereals in many of the foods that they eat and it's only bad for people who have coeliac disease or gluten intolerance.
Coeliac disease affects about one in 100 people and for them, eating gluten causes adverse health effects ranging from tummy bloating, gas, diarrhoea and vomiting to migraine headaches and joint pain.
This is due to an auto immune disorder and whilst there is no cure it can be treated with a gluten-free diet.
Gluten intolerance or gluten sensitivity also arises as a result of an immunological response but is much less severe. Nobody need cut gluten out of their diet unless they are sure that it is responsible for their symptoms. This is because wheat is such a nutritious and versatile food and cutting it out of your diet altogether is very restrictive.
I Always Feel Bloated After Eating – Am I Intolerant To Something?
DHJ: It could be but there are also other possible explanations. Some people tend to swallow a lot of air when they eat especially if they eat quickly and on the run. Other people drink lots of fizzy drinks, which contain carbon dioxide and can bloat them. Fermentation of undigested sugars in foods including fruit and vegetables can produce gas in the large intestine also leading to distension.
That said a food intolerance is always a strong possibility. The trick is to discover which type of food is responsible and that can be done either through a very difficult process of food elimination or through an IgG antibody test.
Moving On To Cows’ Milk, Does It Cause Skin Problems?
DHJ: Intolerance to milk can be due to a negative reaction in the body to either dairy protein or to the natural sugar found in milk called lactose.
The latter tends to cause abdominal symptoms including bloating and wind whereas intolerance to milk proteins can cause a number of varied symptoms including in some people eczema and other skin reactions.
Substituting all dairy products for alternatives such as rice coconut oat milk and soya-based cheeses for example would make a difference but you need to avoid all products containing lactoglobulin lactalbumin caseinate lactose and casein.
Will Ditching Gluten Help Me Lose Weight?
DHJ: There is anecdotal support for this hypothesis but scientific evidence from randomised clinical trials is thin on the ground. It is certainly true that cutting out gluten can lead to weight loss but not for the reason that gluten-free supporters believe.
A strict gluten-free diet would force you to avoid the refined carbohydrates that contain them send this in itself could lead to weight loss.
On balance gluten is probably blamed excessively for weight gain in a society takes on board far too many calories from all kinds of different sources.