How to recover from food intolerance in mid-life
Middle age, I thought, would be a time to indulge in a bit more food freedom – to stop watching what and how much I ate, and how that played out on the scales. But instead, food intolerance came calling, and restriction and angst became the new norm.
Food intolerance, also known as non-allergic food hypersensitivity, refers to difficulty in digesting certain foods. It’s different from food allergies:
- Food intolerance typically occurs several hours after ingesting the offending food or compound, eating small amounts of the culprit food may not cause any reaction, and the condition does not show on allergy testing, whereas
- Food allergy is when a food triggers a harmful and immediate immune response (an allergic reaction known as anaphylaxis), and the condition is evident in allergy testing.
Common symptoms of food intolerance
I suffered for two years or more with unexplained bloating and a constant uncomfortable, heavy feeling in my tummy. There was a firm rounded section just below my belly button. Sometimes the bloating was extreme – I was mistakenly congratulated, at the age of 50 and post menopause…. a little awkward!
I also had a runny nose and a cough. I’ve since discovered, through the elimination process, that dairy causes this for me, along with sinus issues and feeling like a cat with a fur ball!
I could go up a dress size in the space of a day. I had always put my work clothes out the night before, ready for the morning, but choosing something to wear became my worst nightmare. Mornings started to come with a sense of dread, and I’d often leave the house in tears and with clothes left strewn everywhere.
There were many visits to the doctor and various tests, looking for anything from gynaecological issues to bowel cancer.
At one point my bowel was so blocked that it was not easily distinguishable on a scan, and I certainly did look 5 months pregnant!
If you are experiencing bloating like this for the first time, it could be the manifestation of food intolerances in mid-life. Other symptoms you may be noticing are:
- Headaches and migraines
- Runny nose
- Feeling below par – lacking energy and struggling through the day
- Stomach ache
- Irritable bowel
Why does a food intolerance occur?
Nearly all foods require an enzyme for proper digestion. If you do not have an enzyme for breaking down a specific food, then the food remains in the bowel, causing bloating, stomach ache, gas and other issues.
This is the case for people who are lactose intolerant. They do not have enough of the enzyme lactase that breaks down milk and other dairy products into smaller molecules, ready for absorption through the small intestine.
Some people are also more susceptible to certain chemicals; for example, caffeine in coffee, tea and chocolates. While other people are particularly sensitive to histamine that naturally occurs when some foods – fish or fermented foods like pickles for example – ‘rot’ in the gut, causing skin rashes, cramps, diarrhea and nausea. Food additives – artificial colourings, flavours and preservatives – can also be an issue for some people. It is generally nitrates, sulfites and MSG that are the culprits here.
I have also heard that eating too much of a certain food can lead to problems. It’s prudent to remember that a healthy diet is a diverse one, and that too much of a good thing – yes, even a healthy food – can cause digestive upset over time.
Thinking back to the caveman days of our ancestors, daily eating was dependent on the success of the hunt or the catch, and what was in season. Whereas these days we have many foods that are available in our supermarkets all year round.
How to get a diagnosis of food intolerance
It’s not easy to determine that it is in fact a food intolerance causing tummy troubles. It’s a process of elimination. The signs and symptoms of food intolerance and food allergy overlap.
A negative result for allergy, and confirmation that you are not lactose intolerant and do not have celiac disease (a genetically predisposed autoimmune disorder where ingestion of gluten causes damage in the small intestine) is probable diagnosis for food intolerance.
Your best approach is to keep a food journal, noting down what you eat each day and how severely your symptoms present.
This is a good way to ring fence certain foods that are consistently causing issues.
You will need to be vigilant and patient in pursuit of the cause of your bloating and digestive issues.
I remember the constant ups and downs that threatened to spoil every day; tummy pain, difficult bowel routines, and constantly wondering what was wrong sapped the life out of me.
A recovery plan for food intolerance
Once you know that it is not allergy or any other illness that is causing your tummy troubles, you need to get serious about eliminating foods that are known digestive disrupters.
The key is performing a digestive reset. It doesn’t mean living this way for the rest of your life, but you will need to reset your tummy to begin again.
For me, fast forward 6 months of concerted effort and I was in a much better place. I can only assume the course of action I took brought about the change. It did require restriction, and some of the eliminated foods did happen to be some of my favourites (avocado and sweet potato!)
While my stomach hasn’t gone back to its previous flat self completely (this could just be the mid-life change), it is no longer hard and achy after every meal, and my bowel routine has come good. Generally, I have more energy, am sleeping better, and my skin (and the whites of my eyes) look healthier.
Here are the 3 steps I recommend you try first on your tummy reset mission:
1. Only eat from the Low FODMAP foods for at least 3 months, but preferably for 4-5 months.
Download the Low FODMAP app to your iPhone. This enables you to check a food status while at the supermarket or restaurant. Foods are categorised as green (low FODMAP foods, ok to eat), orange (medium FODMAP foods, eat occasionally) or red (high FODMAP foods, avoid).
FODMAPs are a bunch of short chain carbohydrates and sugar alcohols found naturally in foods, or as food additives, and are generally the bloating culprits. I noticed a huge difference as soon as I started this routine.
You will be able to re-introduce some of the ‘eat occasionally and avoid foods’ once your tummy troubles have improved.
In fact, this is a great way to test things out. I began by adding ¼ of an avocado back into my smoothie every second or third day.
Begin including one ‘no’ food at a time though, so you are clear on the impact of doing so (back to food journaling I’m afraid).
Read about the Low FODMAP Diet here, and check out the video The Grand Tour Down Under:
2. Omit dairy, sugar, wheat and gluten from your diet (which is pretty much in line with the Low FODMAP diet anyhow). This means that pre-packaged foods are out (especially cereals).
Buy wheat-free, gluten-free bread from a health shop, and gluten-free pasta from the supermarket.
Choose quinoa, tapioca, spelt and buckwheat (the ancient grains) over oats and rice.
Satisfy your sweet tooth by making the ‘new sweet treats’ using coconut products, buckwheat or spelt flour, dates, nuts, seeds, and maple syrup, organic rice malt syrup or agave syrup.
Drink herbal teas, and choose almond milk.
I observed the above rules in conjunction with 5 months of Low FODMAP eating. I have not returned to eating sugar (and never will), and I limit dairy (goats cheese or feta occasionally, as I’ve found it agrees with me in small amounts, or thinly sliced Swiss cheese on my homemade pizza once a fortnight).
You may need to indulge in a small amount of dairy to get your fix; it is addictive after all, meaning going cold turkey might lead to binging.
Or choose coconut yoghurt and dairy-free sorbet to satisfy your cravings for something smooth and creamy.
I continue to choose gluten and wheat free as much as possible; they are one of my major disrupters. It is fantastic that shops, cafes and restaurants are catering to food intolerances nowadays.
There’s an interesting and helpful book by Dr Michael Mosley called The Clever Guts Diet, that takes a look at digestion from the inside (Michael swallows a small camera and the workings of his stomach, intestine and bowel are broadcast on a big screen!). There’s a diet plan and recipes included.
Check out The Clever Guts Diet website at:
You can buy the book via Amazon at the website above.
Or, in Australia, you can purchase the book online or in-store at Booktopia.
3. Supplement with gelatin for its digestive supporting properties.
We all know that collagen supports our connective tissue and makes our skin firm, and that we make less collagen as we get older, hence the aging appearance of our skin.
But did you know that consuming gelatin (cooked collagen) allows our bodies to make more collagen? Not only will this benefit skin elasticity, ligaments and joints… but gelatin also supports the digestive tract. It aids good digestion and promotes a healthy gut.
It even reduces the impact of food allergies and intolerances through repair of the gut lining (meaning our bodies don’t have the same reaction to intolerances). Gelatin assists digestion by naturally binding with water to help food move through the digestive tract more easily.
So how can you get more gelatin in your diet?
The answer is by using a gelatin supplement, powder form, or by making bone broth using slow cooked animal bones.
Add gelatin to smoothies, or sprinkle some onto quinoa porridge. Alternatively, make sugar-free jellies or marshmallow. I always add some to chia jam when I make it.
I got into making bone broth after reading about its incredible digestive healing properties, and because something about the loss of the old ways of cooking food having contributed to a reduction of gelatin in our diets made sense (back to our ancestors again).
Make a bone broth from the Sunday roast leftovers, soup bones from the butcher or a chicken carcass. Broth (somewhere between a soup and a stock) made with animal bones is a natural way to get gelatin in your diet. Broth is easily digestible, helps heal the lining of our gut, and contains valuable nutrients. It contains minerals in a form the body can easily absorb, including calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, silicon, sulfur and trace minerals.
It also contains the broken-down material from cartilage and tendons; chondroitin sulphates and glucosamine (yes, that’s right, substances you can pay a fortune for as supplements to assist with joint health). Gelatin is an all-round winner for mid-life!
Check out The Me in Menopause post on how to make bone broth here:
I buy my collagen and gelatin supplements here, in Australia:
What about probiotics and prebiotics?
While probiotics – live bacteria and yeasts that live inside your gastrointestinal tract – are considered the good guys in creating optimal conditions in your gut, prebiotics are food that keeps the probiotics happy. This makes both essential in maintaining a healthy gut balance.
Prebiotics are essentially a non-digestible fibre compound, meaning they pass through the stomach without being broken down, and become a nutrient source or ‘fuel’ for the beneficial bacteria living within the gut.
The probiotic foods are:
- Sour cream
Not easy when you are trying to go dairy free!
Here are the best on the prebiotic food list:
- Raw chicory root
- Raw Jerusalem artichoke
- Raw dandelion greens
- Raw garlic
- Raw leeks
- Raw and cooked onions
- Raw asparagus
- Raw banana
Again, most of these foods are ‘red’ on the Low FODMAP diet. Only firm bananas are given the green light.
So, what to do?
It really is trial and error with these foods. I was not aware that they were some of the potential culprits for my bloating and discomfort but once I knew, and monitored them, I realised they did invoke symptoms.
However, I have also discovered that I eventually get a pain in my heart if I forgo garlic altogether. It is similar to the pain I had in my early twenties when a heart murmur was diagnosed. There certainly is evidence to support eating garlic (specifically raw) for heart disease prevention. All I can tell you is, once I get the pain, I add garlic to a meal and the pain is gone.
My suggestion would be to go without the probiotic and prebiotic foods while on the Low FODMAP diet, at least for a couple of months… and certainly test them out while food journaling to gauge your bloating response. If there is any suggestion that a gut bacteria imbalance is your issue, through prolonged use of antibiotics for example, then you may be better to start with a probiotic and prebiotic regime, rather than the Low FODMAP diet. If it doesn’t work, you can always switch to the diet after a couple of months.
About 4 months into the Low FODMAP diet I started taking Bio Trust Advanced Probiotic and GI Health Formula tablets. But because I had already been doing the Low FODMAP diet for some time, I could not say categorically that the tablets made further improvements. I did test them out a couple of times, when I had gone out with friends and indulged in some dairy and alcohol, by taking up to three tablets prior to going to bed. I did notice a better tummy response than I would have ordinarily had the next day.
If you are going to take a probiotic or prebiotic supplement, then ensure it contains live organisms in large amounts. Bio Trust, for example, delivers 50 billion per daily dose.
You can buy Bio Trust Advanced Probiotic and GI Health Formula here (it’s called Pro-X10 2.0): http://sem.biotrust.com/Shop.asp?s=&View=Item&Product=3444
The complexity that is our gut
There is a big swing toward the opinion that everything starts in the gut, and that your overall health status is determined by your gut health. Research is finding more than ever before that there are links between digestive health and chronic illness. Healing your gut will lead to a stronger immune system and production of the right kind of bacteria that tell your brain it’s okay to feel good.
In this way, the gut has been called your bodies ‘second brain’, since digestion and bacteria impact mood, general health and mental health. In the words of Dr Michael Moseley,
“Your gut is astonishingly clever. It contains millions of neurons – as many as you would find in the head of a cat. It is also home to the microbiome, trillions of microbes that influence our mood, weight and immune system.”
It seems to me that in mid-life there is a lot that can catch up with us. Poor eating or over eating of certain foods, perhaps combined with stress or the on-set of genetic health issues, can manifest in ways that disrupt the balance within our tummies. Once this occurs, it is reflected in how we feel every day – in how much energy we have, how much resistance to illness, and how mid-life weight gain impacts us. Mid-life is a time when we can no longer get away with bad habits.
I call it the ‘mid-life collide’, when time and treatment (of oneself) come together and let you know that something must change!
Bloating is hard to ignore, as I discovered. It’s frustrating and uncomfortable, and it can take a long time to diagnose and manage. However, a gut reset in mid-life is a worthy task, giving your gut a chance to repair and rebalance.
Remember, it’s not for life. It’s a recovery. Eliminated foods are slowly re-introduced once the healing has occurred.
Food intolerances are one way our gut can tell us that things are not right. Listen to your gut.