Gluten, lactose and histamine intolerance: in today’s society it is hard to find anyone that does not have some form of food intolerance. From 15-19 October around 9,000 researchers, clinicians and industry representatives will get together at the Austria Center Vienna to discuss the latest scientific findings in this area at United European Gastroenterology’s UEG Week.
One of the central focuses of this year’s event is on detecting food allergies and the increasing prevalence of intolerances. Fad, economic driver for the food and beverages industry, or a genuine health concern for today’s generation?
Prof. Alexander Moschen from the Innsbruck University Hospital for Internal Medicine has been monitoring the situation over the long term and confirms: “It is a scientific fact that the intestines have a significant influence on our health. But the hype is simply not justified. Not every person that experiences digestive issues from time to time automatically has an intolerance, let alone an allergy.”
The key to a healthy digestive tract: natural foodstuffs, setting aside time for meals and sufficient exercise Food allergies, intolerances and following the healthiest diet are contentious issues, economic factors and reflect society’s desire for self-improvement.
“It is actually quite simple. Anyone looking to switch to a healthier lifestyle should focus on regional and natural foodstuffs, set aside adequate time for meals and ensure that they get enough exercise – and the intestinal tract will take care of itself. Our digestive system has worked over the past few millennia without us paying too much attention to it and will continue to do its work with the help of our microbes,” Moschen notes.
Awareness of foodstuffs and conscious enjoyment are the key to success. “Convenience products packed with artificial additives can damage the intestinal mucous membrane, increasing its permeability for allergens. But distracted eating can also have a negative influence on our intestinal health,” the gastroenterology specialist cautions.
Moschen also highlights the significant rise in intolerances, allergies and inflammatory intestinal diseases. An increase of several percent has been reported among the 20 to 30 age group. In Austria it is believed that around one to three percent of the population suffers from food allergies, while around 40,000 to 50,000 patients have some form of inflammatory intestinal disease. “In addition to a genetic predisposition, the triggers are largely environmental factors. Diet, stress and the patient’s lifestyle have a major influence on their digestive system.” Studies confirm that moving to a new area and the related change in eating habits has an influence on the intestinal flora and the incidence of digestive disorders. Repeated dietary change or recourse to special diets can be counterproductive among people who already manifest a predisposition to food intolerances.
People are advised to go and see a doctor if they suffer from persistent digestive problems and diarrhoea – 3 months are a general rule of thumb – or red flags such as weight loss, blood in the stool or night-time symptoms. “In the majority of cases, complaints relating to intolerances only manifest themselves after a delay of anything from several hours to a day after the foodstuff in question is ingested. With allergies, symptoms almost invariably appear much sooner,” Moschen says. Consultation with a doctor and targeted diagnostics are used to zero in on the underlying cause of the complaint. “In the case of intolerance, blood tests do not show up anything unusual, resorption is good, inflammatory markers are negative particularly in the stool sample, and the endoscopy does not show anything out of the ordinary. In most cases, it is possible to reduce the level of suffering through targeted measures,” he adds.
How should people manage intolerances?
An elimination diet is a good place to start when looking to diagnose an intolerance. “Ideally a nutrition plan should be drawn up in consultation with a qualified professional dietician and trigger foods eliminated over a longer period to find out what is causing the symptoms. Unfortunately there is no quick solution. In principle, I would advise against non-targeted screening tests such as IgG4-Tests. A positive value is in no way an indication of a pathology, and under certain circumstances could even mean the opposite. One common outcome of these tests is that they unsettle the patient, which can lead to additional questionable diagnosis and expensive attempts at therapy. Determining the makeup and diversity of the intestinal flora presently has no relevance for clinical diagnosis outside of studies,” Moschen explains.