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  • Writer's pictureAlison Cowell

Food intolerance

Updated: Oct 5, 2021

A food intolerance is not the same as a food allergy. Just as it has always done, the body needs to let us know when we are being invaded or attacked. With an allergic response, the body releases chemicals (histamine or anaphylaxis) which trigger an immediate symptom. You might feel a tingling sensation on your lips or tongue, you might notice welts appearing- in the worst-case scenario, your oesophagus would close and you’d suffer an anaphylactic shock. So, people with allergies usually know they have them!

Intolerances are different. When you eat a food that you are intolerant to, your immune system perceives specific food molecules as ‘invaders’. This affects the autonomic nervous system (our inbuilt ‘fight or flight’ response) and for a split second we are on full alert. At this precise time, our muscles ‘fail’, we produce adrenalin and we also produce antibodies if the invader is entering our system. All of this takes place without us noticing! Yet the impact is immense. In your small intestine, you have trillions of villi, little finger-like protrusions that help distribute the nutrients to your cells. When you are intolerant to a food and experience the ‘fight or flight ‘response, as all your muscles fail, so do the villi. They immediately lay flat. When that happens, all your nutrients pass through your system without ever reaching the cells they were destined to feed. Once the danger has passed, the villi stand upright again – and you haven’t noticed a thing.

The first symptom you may feel is hunger; you’ve had a hearty breakfast at 7.30am but by 9.00am you are ravenous. That’s because you didn’t absorb the nutrients from your breakfast. You might also notice tiredness – one of those days you are struggling through, yawning, unable to concentrate and feeling generally blah. Hunger and tiredness are common symptoms of food intolerances but not always investigated. Perhaps the symptom that may get your attention is digestive discomfort. You may experience anything from bloating and gas, reflux and heartburn to irregular bowel movements caused by inflammation and damage to your intestinal tract.

There are various methods to test for food intolerance, including blood test, PST (percutaneous skin testing), hair analysis and muscle testing (applied kinesiology). When I first heard about muscle testing I was very sceptical. I Googled it (as you do!) and concluded that it was a load of old twaddle. When it was included in one of the courses I was studying I was less than impressed, but went along with it because it was part of the course and I wasn’t studying in order to set up a practice (ha!) or go preaching to the world (double ha!). I was studying because I was so very unwell and the only advice I had been given was to ‘take this medication for the rest of your life’. During my studies, it was revealed that I was intolerant to eggs, tomatoes and mushrooms. The test required that I eliminate them from my diet. I did so……and I could not believe the impact! Almost immediately my intense fatigue lifted and my digestive system improved dramatically. Could it be that simple? Yes, it could. From that time on I have never needed any medication to manage my symptoms of ulcerative colitis and have been in complete remission. As time went by, I re-introduced all of them and can now enjoy a lovely vegetarian breakfast featuring all three. However, if I am feeling rundown or that something is ‘not quite right’ in my body, then I eliminate them until I feel my system is more settled.

I cannot begin to tell you how excited I was by this – this very simple – revelation! I wanted to shout it from the rooftops. Why weren’t we taking intolerances more seriously? Sure, I had been tested for coeliac disease (extreme intolerance to gluten) as part of the many tests I had whilst they were trying to figure out why I was so unwell. (For many years, my doctor had dismissed all my symptoms as ‘part of menopause’, and I had believed him until I was so debilitated and it was evident that not all pre-menopausal women were in a constant state of collapse!). I didn’t have an issue with gluten, nor indeed with dairy. Nope. I had issues with the very healthy organic eggs, home-grown tomatoes and mushrooms that made up a large part of my vegetarian diet.

When I decided to go into practice, I made sure that food intolerance tests were an integral part of the consultations. I appreciated that not everyone would be comfortable with muscle testing, so I offered (and still do offer) a range of testing methods – anything that will enable me to help find the friends and the foes for my clients.


Sandra was an exceptionally fit and healthy 64-year-old. A high performing athlete for most of her life, she was still competing in challenging triathlons and marathons and her performance could knock spots off those half her age. Her usual regime included 100k bike rides 3 times a week, 15k runs every day and regular swimming sessions. She also did weight training. All of these exercises would be increased in the lead up to her events. Her diet (on paper at least) was exemplary. She had paid for a dietician to work out what was best for her before, during and after exercise and was following it religiously. Yet Sandra was overweight and miserable. She went to her doctor to ask why she wasn’t losing weight, and he simply told her to ‘eat less and move more’. She was understandably devastated. A friend of hers had been to see me and suggested she should come along. Reluctantly she did. Her whole demeanour reflected the frustration and hopelessness that she was experiencing. Through her sighs, she answered my questions. I was beginning to pick up signs that she had quite acute nutritional deficiencies despite her healthy diet. One look at her tongue confirmed my suspicion that she had food intolerances and had likely had them for a while. “But I never have gluten or dairy and I am following a clean-eating diet” she sighed. Great- but some of the foods you are eating are clearly not your friends I told her. She agreed to a food intolerance test and it revealed that she was hugely intolerant to spinach, kale, broccoli, almonds, blueberries and coconut. Most of which went into her ‘healthy’ smoothie every morning!

The turnaround in her health was (as I knew it would be) dramatic. She not only felt better, had more focus and concentration (which she hadn’t realised was a problem until she got it back) but she also lost weight.


I also recall the story of Jessica, an ex-nurse who had been suffering from malaise and migraines for 17 years. With no obvious reason for her symptoms, her doctors had put her on strong pain killers and anti-depressants. On a good day, Jessica could struggle down the path to her mailbox. On a bad day, she was bedridden in a darkened room. She had far more bad days than good. Again, it was a friend who suggested that Jessica come along for a consultation with me. Like Sandra, Jessica was intolerant to ‘healthy’ food, with her biggest culprit being bananas. I saw her on a Monday and after we did the test (she had the muscle test, so the results were instant) she asked how soon she might expect to feel better. I told her that everyone was different, of course, but now that we had identified some clear food enemies, she should be hopeful that it wouldn’t be too long. She called me on Friday of the same week exclaiming “don’t tell me it was that simple?!” After 17 years of what she described as a ‘living hell’ she was back on the right path in just a week, after just one hour’s consultation with me. (Gosh, I love this job!). Well, Jessica was on a mission after that! She went to her doctor, her specialist, the newspaper, the national radio station, the District Health Board, even the Minister for Health at the time! She was outraged that not one person had considered food intolerance tests throughout her years of misery and that she felt she had been ‘fobbed off’ with medication.

As you can imagine, I have no end of similar stories (another book beckons!) but I will end with just one more. This one touches my heart every time I relay it because it had such a profound effect not only on the little girl I was treating, but all her lovely family.


Little Kate was 5 years old. I had given a presentation to her Dad’s place of work and he approached me afterwards to ask if I could help his little girl. Her hair was falling out and no-one could understand why. The usual test had been done and a counsellor had been brought in just in case it was stress related. No joy. I agreed to see beautiful little Kate, and her Mum & Dad joined her at the first appointment. It was immediately apparent that Kate also had a skin problem. “Oh, we are seeing a dermatologist for that” said her Mum. As I proceeded with the consultation, it was also evident that Kate had awful digestive problems. She had been constipated almost form birth “but we are seeing a gastroenterologist for that”. Hmmm….. I then did some food intolerance testing and picked up that Kate was intolerant to gluten, soy, eggs and borderline to dairy. I assured her Mum that as soon as we eliminated these foods from her diet, the digestive system would work, and once that was doing what it should, her cells would receive the nutrients they needed and her skin would clear up, and her hair would grow back. Kate’s Mum was delighted although I could see she was still a little bit cautious about being too excited, after 5 years of tests and appointments all to no avail, who could blame her.

Just 4 weeks later, little Kate came back for her review and it was an absolute joy to see her looking so different. As predicted, her digestive system was working well, her new foods were suiting her system, her skin had cleared and there was wonderful evidence of new hair growth. That would be fantastic enough if that were the end of the story but there’s more and, for me, it is the most wonderful part. Kate’s Mum had tears in her eyes as she said “We have a new child. We have never known her so happy and engaged with everything she does. We have other children and had concluded that Kate was the quiet one. She would do puzzles or colouring in, read books etc but never seemed to want to take part in anything demanding or exciting. She was happy enough in herself -or so we thought. Since the change in diet, she dances, plays, laughs- she is HAPPY!” That’s because 90% of serotonin (our ‘feel-good’ brain chemical) is manufactured in the gut, and little Kate’s gut had not been working since she’d been born.

I saw Kate’s Mum some months later and she told me that Kate had reached the top of her class. That’s so good to hear, given that prior to the change in her diet her teachers had said she was struggling and didn’t seem to be able to concentrate.

Now, Kate’s Mum wasn’t setting out to harm her child; Sandra wasn’t intentionally tripping herself up with her choice of smoothie and Jessica most certainly didn’t realise that her organic food choices were keeping her practically bed ridden for 17 years. That’s the impact that food intolerances can have.

I urge you, if you or your loved ones are experiencing an ongoing health issue, skin issue, weight issue or even depression, please do consider having a food intolerance test. And be aware, that it’s not always gluten at fault here! So many specialists test for gluten and that’s as far as the tests go, but as you’ve seen, it can be any food!

I've attached a food and symptom diary template if you wish to monitor how food affects you.

Food and Symptom diary - ACS
Download PDF • 31KB

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