Allergies and Intolerances to Food  

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Finding a good herbalist

Most of what's written in this article is entirely suitable for a person to work through themselves but, especially if things are quite bad, or you just know that you need further help, then there may be a great deal of benefit to you to go to whatever lengths necessary to find a good herbalist or truly holistic practitioner to guide you on to a safe and strong treatment program. There's a short write-up to suggest how you might go about finding such a person here

Allergy vs. Intolerance

Allergies and intolerances clearly affect a great many people and it has frequently been seen how the turning point in their health getting better has hinged on finding and removing those substances that were causing them harm.

First of all we must understand the difference between an allergy and intolerance because, whilst allergy gets by far the most attention in medicine it can be seen that many chronic health problems are rather connected to intolerances.



An ‘allergy’ is what happens when contact with a substance causes large amounts of histamine and other inflammatory chemicals to be quickly, sometimes violently, released.

In extreme cases the person can have what is called an ‘anaphylactic reaction’ where their mouth and throat swell and their airways get blocked. In such an emergency an adrenaline injection may be needed to rapidly open the airways to prevent a catastrophic consequence.

Less severe allergies happen via the same mechanism but in a milder manner with such symptoms as a moderate degree of swelling in the mouth, coughing and wheezing, o a rash of itching or welts on the skin. In such cases, it is common to recommended antihistamine drugs or, if that proves ineffective, to use steroidal drugs to try to dampen down the hyperactive immune response.

Allergies manifest so quickly because the immune system thinks there is a toxic invasion taking place and tries to get rid of the substance as quickly as possible. Swelling, coughing, scratching etc. are all attempts to try to push the substance away as quickly as possible.


'Intolerances' equally involve the immune system, and in many ways are just as much an 'allergic' reaction, but the crucial differences are the cells that are involved and the time factor.

Intolerances are primarily mediated through white blood cells called IgG cells. Allergies, on the other hand, primarily involve IgE cells).

The IgG cells typically cause an inflammatory process to take place deeper inside the body, they usually involve foods and, as the food is being digested, it may take as much as one or two days to see the symptoms come out compared to as little as minutes, or even seconds, for a classic allergy.

Intolerances are also much harder to diagnose. You may be highly intolerant to milk, or gluten, to use the two most common examples, but skin prick tests and conventional IgE blood tests may tell you that you have no allergy to these substances whatsoever!

Intolerances are often a root cause of eczema and asthma and they are also involved in many other health problems that involve low-grade, chronic inflammation, especially ones that affect the muscular-skeletal, the respiratory, and the digestive systems.


How are allergies & intolerances diagnosed?

The skin-prick method

Many people with health problems that look like they might be caused by 'allergies' will receive a skin prick test. This is very helpful for identifying the immediate, classical allergy type reactions as described above because the skin immediately swells when exposed to a tiny amount of the suspected 'allergen'. The degree of swelling then gives a rough indication as to how allergic you are.

Unfortunately, and perhaps because these skin-prick tests usually include some foods along with pollens, dust-mites etc. many people think that if they or their children have had one of these tests then they are all clear and it must be something else that is the problem.

The skin-prick method does not help with diagnosing food intolerances, not at all. They can only tell you what you are allergic to, not what you may be intolerant to.

The elimination and challenge diet

The gold standard method of diagnosing food intolerance, the elimination and challenge diet, works especially well at diagnosing intolerances. This is the method whereby you exclude the suspected food or foods and completely avoid any trace of them for a set time (usually 7-10 days) followed by a gradual and systematic re-introduction of the foods that have been avoided.

Dairy products and Gluten-containing foods are by far the most common sources of food intolerance and for many people the removal of either of these has been seen to be a huge turning point in their health. Some practical instructions and suggestions on this process are provided in the links immediately below.


Testing for allergies & intolerances

Proceed with caution:
You cannot accurately or scientifically diagnose food allergy or intolerance through the use of hair or saliva samples. If the test system does not use blood then - buyer beware!

There are a lot of alternative methods out there said to be able to diagnose food allergies and intolerances and if you have a look on the internet you will see what I mean. They all tend to look authentic and reliable and it really would be marvellous if they were actually accurate but the sad truth is that most of them are really bad; based on shonky science or no science at all. Some common examples include the ‘blood group diet’, 'saliva-testing', 'hair-testing' to name several popular though completely unscientific systems.

You need to be really careful in this area because; aside from losing your time and money there is much danger in being wrongly advised because by an innacurate method. If you do such a test (or follow a diet plan based on something like your blood group) they will inevitably tell you that you are allergic to a handful of foods and this is where the real trouble can start.

What happens in the world of pseudo-scientific allergy testing is that pretty much everyone tested always shows either dairy or gluten reactions or both and many of those people tested genuinely do have an intolerance to one or both of these foods. Consequently, there may indeed be significant improvements in health from avoiding the dairy or gluten but in the meanwhile there are 10 or 20 other perfectly healthy foods that have also registered as being allergic on the unscientific test.

You simply cannot overestimate the power of the mind. If you start believing that a bunch of foods will harm you then it is highly likely that you will react badly to eating any of them again, even if they have been entirely innocent of doing you any harm for your entire life up until now!

This is where the 'baby is thrown out with the bathwater' and in the long term it makes for depleted nutrition and, especially harmful, a great deal of long-term stress trying to navigate your way through life in the world with a list of prohibited foods that are in fact perfectly okay for you to eat.

Aside from the elimination and challenge diet as described above, the only testing process for food intolerances that I think have any real credibility are blood tests that pick up IgG intolerances.

Unfortunately, most routine blood testing does not include this though you can ask your Doctor if they are able to order IgG tests for you as an increasing number of laboratories do offer this service.

I have personally for some years now been using the IgG blood test from Cambridge Nutritional Services in England The tests are expensive but I have seen an excellent correlation of its accuracy to real life people and problems and it has been greatly helpful in those cases where more than a simple dairy or gluten intolerance is involved.

Just to be clear I have zero financial connection to this business but in many parts of the world you can order a test from them directly by you can looking up Cambridge Nutritional Services online (

People are understandably daunted at the idea of doing a blood test by themselves but their website gives a video demonstration of how you do the test at home and likewise the pamphlet that comes with the test is well explained and makes it easy to do.

I will just say that the supportive pamphlet that comes with the test rather downplays the importance of positive reactions that only cause a light shade of blue in the test 'circles'. In my own clinical experience even those milder levels of intolerance suggest that the reactive foods should be completely avoided until health has improved. The stronger levels of reaction are the foods that are likely to need to be avoided for much longer time frames as discussed further below.

What do we do about food intolerances?

Once you know what you are reacting to then you must start avoiding that food or foods completely because only very small amounts can be required to keep the inflammatory immune reactions going. For some people, especially young children or those who are generally very healthy, it is enough to simply remove those food triggers and everything quickly starts sorting itself out. However, for others, especially if they are older or have been ill for a while, a more holistic approach may be needed.

In this instance there may be a great deal of benefit to you going to some trouble to find a good herbalist to help you with this whole process. I have a short write-up to suggest how you might go about finding such a person here.

In my own practice, which has always included many patients with badly compromised immune health, sorting out food intolerances can be a pivotal step but I may also need to use such key immune tonic herbs as Echinacea, Astragalus, Calendula, Panax Ginseng and Withania to make the difference between a partial and a full recovery of health.

There are other matters that can be just as vital to attend to, such as eating well generally, and gettting enough rest, sunshine and water! For a more detailed discussion about what reliably builds good immune health read here.

Echinacea angustifolia


Can food intolerance be cured?

If people fully stay away from the foods that are affecting them and, crucially, they are in good health, then you do see something rather wonderful happening in many cases which is that after a few months they can literally start ‘growing out of’ their food intolerances.

We expect this to happen by itself in a fair percentage of children that get food reactions. Just being young and having all that natural vitality sees many children eventually getting better by themselves. However, the older or sicker someone is the less chance there is that this will happen without both a total avoidance of the food intolerances as well as some measures to improve overall health.

The answer to the question 'can food intolerances be cured?' is a definite maybe! Whilst there is a good chance it could happen you still need to be careful how you work towards this step. Starting with, once you know what you are intolerant to, you need to completely avoid those foods that have been causing your immune system to react to them.

The gold standard for how long you have to completely avoid food intolerances is 3 months, Don't plan for a short-cut, this is the amount of time it takes for many of the white blood cells that are involved with intolerances to live through their life cycle. How you go about seeing if you have cured the problem also needs great care; I call this process 'three strikes and you're in'.

Withania somnifera

Three strikes and you're in!

The first time you eat the food that you have been avoiding eat only a tiny fraction of a portion. For example, a single bite of a piece of bread, or just a sip of milk, or just a half teaspoon of egg etc. Then wait for 48 hours and don't let yourself be tempted to eat any more of that food until a whole 2 days has passed.

Do not worry if you get some reactive symptoms such as a very mild stomach upset, a slightly itchy skin, a feeling of being edgy or out-of-sorts etc. That is normal and even to be expected but so long as those mild symptoms quickly pass within the 48 hours then your body has said 'ok, we know what this is but we aren't going to go to any serious lengths to react to it and try to stop it from coming in' In other words you are starting to develop some 'tolerance'.

If you feel a lot worse and it doesn't just pass away within the 2 days, then you need to accept that you are not ready to tolerate this food and you have to go back to avoiding it again. It will no doubt be a disappointment but don't let it stop you trying again later, things change with time!

However, if you do soon feel better again then you should definitely go to the second step. This is to eat another portion of the same food that gives you substantially more than the first time but still not quite a full serve e.g. half a slice of bread, 50mls of milk, a quarter of an egg. Again wait for 2 whole days to allow your immune system to see that this substance does not pose any serious threat and again don't worry if you feel like you are reacting badly so long as it if fairly minor and, most importantly, it passes. People, especially children, are naturally anxious about this but try not to over-think what is happening. So long as your immune system calms down your body will learn that this food is not a threat and can be safely consumed in larger quantities.

The third step, and again make sure this is after a full 48 hours, is to deliberately eat a full portion of the allergenic food and again this is where the two day wait to let everything settle is especially crucial. So long as you have carefully taken the first two steps without any real trouble the chance that this 3rd stage will go without a hitch is good because you have already been retraining your immune system.

After this process you should carefully and systematically keep adding small amounts of the previously avoided food, reminding your immunity that this is a friend rather than a foe and establishing the food as 'safe'.

What I have found in practice is that so long as people stay relatively well then they remain tolerant but if they go through another illness or a really bad patch of stress then their intolerances may come back. In this case you may need to start again and you really should be thinking about getting some good herbal support from nature rather than trying to do this too much alone.

Calendula officinalis


Constitutional Health Note:

Finally, there are many other old ways of healing from Nature that you might like to learn more about and if so, then a good place to start would be to learn about your constitution to help better understand how allergies and intolerances have become an issue in your health as well as what kinds of foods, herbs etc. may best help.

To demonstrate this with a couple of generalisations, if you are a hot and dryer person (an Eagle) then you are the kind of person who is most likely going to be affected by an over-active immune system whereas if you are a cool and damper constitution, 'a Bear' you are more likely to have an underactive immune system at the heart of your troubles. There is a brief introduction to this subject here and a more detailed section on working out which constitution you are here.

Please understand that I cannot personally advise you without seeing you in my clinic.
This living 'book' is my labour of love so, wherever you are, I wish you peace & good health!



© 2011 R.J.Whelan Ltd