Today I’d like to explore food allergies vs. intolerance vs. sensitivity. I think there is a lot of confusion around these terms and how, even if, they differ. The words are bandied about the news and Internet, along with fear-inducing warnings and questionable information. It seems more and more people have problems with certain foods, or claim they do, and it’s hard to know when the claims are serious. You may have been on an airplane where they announced “No peanuts today as there is a passenger with a peanut allergy on board.” Or maybe your child’s school sent a note prohibiting peanut-containing snacks or lunches. “Wow,” you may think, “is it really that dangerous?” For some people the answer is yes. So let’s outline the differences and similarities.

          An actual allergy to a food causes the body’s immune system to react, sometimes aggressively. The body views a protein in the food as an invader and attacks the invader with antibodies. You may be familiar with people taking an anti-histamine medicine when they have hives or itchy seasonal allergy symptoms – the histamine produced by the body in this fight against invaders causes those symptoms. However, a true food allergy can be much more serious, causing anaphylactic shock in some people. Other symptoms are less serious but can increase in severity if exposure continues. These could be skin reactions, like hives, swelling, and itching or digestive symptoms like vomiting, diarrhea, nausea, and stomach pain.

          A food intolerance does not involve the immune system. Intolerance most often means your body cannot break the food down properly in your digestive track. Milk intolerance is the most common, and is due to lack of the enzyme lactase needed to break down the lactose in the milk. Other causes of intolerance are certain food additives like sulfites or nitrites; extreme aversion to a certain food; and intolerance of naturally occurring substances like histamines. Generally the symptoms of food intolerance are gastrointestinal-related. Some blog articles point to skin disorders from intolerances but the medical sites did not list skin problems as related to food intolerance. Food intolerance will not cause anaphylactic shock.

          Food sensitivity is sometimes the term used for food intolerances, but where it is distinguished it refers more to the    discomfort some people may experience after eating spicy foods or acidic foods, or the faint mouth itchiness some people get after eating a banana but with no other symptoms. Food sensitivities also do not involve the immune system.

While allergies and intolerances share some symptoms, the main difference is the involvement of the immune system. Also, reactions from a food allergy generally begin immediately or within a short time of eating the food, where reaction from a food intolerance may not show up for hours or even a few days. An allergy causes a reaction from even a small amount of the food but intolerance usually flares up after eating a lot of the problem food. I am lactose intolerant but find I can have a small amount of cheese, for instance, without symptoms, especially if I indulge only on occasion. My experience highlights another difference – an allergy causes the reactions every time the offending food is eaten but a food intolerance often only flares up if the food is eaten often. Allergies can be life-threatening but intolerances are not.

Just as food allergies and intolerances can be outgrown or fade, we can also develop an allergy or intolerance as adults, even after eating the food for years without problems. This is very common for milk intolerance. Children with food allergies often outgrow them, especially milk, egg, and soy allergies, usually by age 6 or 10. It is less likely they will outgrow peanut, tree nut, or shellfish allergies.[1] The most common allergens, accounting for about 90% of food allergies, are: milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, and soybeans. [Note that gluten is not listed here, even though it seems to be such a huge topic. You may think people with celiac disease(~ 1% of the US population) are allergic to gluten but it is not an allergy, rather it’s an autoimmune disease.  ‘Non-celiac gluten sensitivity’ is a fairly new disorder and one that is difficult to diagnose, as there is no test for it and removing gluten from the diet may also remove other causes of the symptoms.]

If you suspect you have an allergy to a food, you should avoid the food and seek testing to be sure. If it proves you are allergic you will need to continue to avoid the food, and other foods that may include it. If your symptoms are severe you should carry an epinephrine pen at all times.  If you suspect you have a food intolerance, the best way to be sure is to track what you’ve eaten when you experience the symptoms, and then try an elimination diet on the most likely culprits. This should tell you if you can eat a little on occasion or should just eliminate it for good. Remember to check on preparation when eating out – was the sauce made with shrimp stock and you are allergic to shrimp? I have a friend who is allergic to potatoes and has to be careful of fried foods, soups, breads, and sauces because they often have potato or potato starch, or were cooked alongside potatoes. Read labels, ask questions, and protect your health.



Most of us shy away from discussing bowel habits outside the doctor’s office; for some people even inside the doctor’s office is off limits for this topic. Yet, we all poop and most people suffer from constipation at some time or another, so why all the secrecy and reluctance to talk about it? Not good dinner table conversation perhaps, but there’s no reason not to talk about a common problem with a natural function. There’d be less suffering if people shared tips on how to get past constipation.

What is constipation? It is when the solid waste material doesn’t move through and out of the body in a timely manner, or is dry and hard to excrete. Other symptoms include gas, painful bloating, and straining to go or feeling that the bowel movement is not complete. Constipation that lasts for an extended period may lead to hemorrhoids, diverticulosis, or impacted bowels among other risks. Obviously, sudden and severe onset of constipation, especially if blood is present in the stool, or constipation that is not relieved by the usual remedies should be discussed with your medical professional without delay.

I admit to suffering from occasional constipation throughout my life, sometimes worse than others. It can really make a person cranky, to just not feel tip-top because a function that should just happen isn’t working. Speaking of normal, we are unique individuals and our bodies work within the rhythm that is right for each. Other peoples’ natural schedule of bowel movements may not be your natural rhythm. There is no “right” timing or amount; you should respect the signals from your body. That said, not having a bowel movement for a week or even for 4-5 days is a concern and you should be looking into what is going on.

What are some of the causes of occasional episodes of constipation?

  • Overuse of antacid medicines containing calcium or aluminum
  • Changes in your usual diet or activities, like when on vacation or change in job
  • Consuming a lot of dairy products
  • Eating disorders
  • Not being active
  • Not enough water or fiber in your diet
  • Overuse of laxatives (creates a dependency)
  • Pregnancy
  • Too often ignoring the urge to have a bowel movement
  • Some medications (especially strong pain drugs, antidepressants, or iron pills)
  • Excess stress

To avoid occasional bout of constipation, the general recommendations are simple lifestyle changes:

  • Exercise daily, for about 30 minutes. Exercise is essential to regular bowel movements. I find Hatha yoga especially helpful as it massages your internal organs, but a good walk helps too.
  • Drink plenty of water – 1 ½ – 2 quarts per day.
  • Eat plenty of fiber from whole fruits and vegetables, legumes, and whole-grain bread and cereal.
  • Cut back on milk and cheeses. Dairy products are constipating for some people, maybe for you.
  • If you take calcium supplements, be sure to get half as much magnesium to counter the sometimes constipating effects of calcium.
  • To relieve stress use a relaxation technique daily, especially meditation or breathing exercises. Stress interferes with relaxation of the whole body, including the bowels.
  • Don’t ignore the urge to go. Peristalsis of the bowel is the movements that trigger a bowel movement. If you ignore the urge, the opportunity may pass and lead to stool backing up
  • Do not use caffeine as a laxative. While coffee and other forms of caffeine may work as laxatives when used occasionally, when used regularly for this purpose caffeine, like the constant use of laxatives, prevents the bowels from following their own natural rhythm.
  • Don’t smoke. Nicotine affects the bowel in the same manner as caffeine.
  • Avoid constipating drugs if you can. The most common are opiates, diuretics, anti-depressants, and anti-histamines, among others.

There now, that wasn’t so bad, was it? Simple talk about what is often a simple problem with easy solutions. Hopefully you do not need this information often; if you do a health coach may be able to help reduce that need.

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at

20160719_stop gmoWith the U.S. Senate voting on the subject of labeling for GMOs last week, the subject has been prominent in the news again. If you aren’t really sure what the hub-bub is about, “GMO” stands for genetically modified organism, which is achieved by altering the genes of an organism by use of genetic engineering (GE). The subject of genetic modification is broad and covers many areas, but the focus of this post, and most of the talk you have been hearing, is on genetically modified foods. Some people argue that genetically modifying foods has been done for centuries, claiming that hybrid varieties of apples or corn, or newer fruits like the pluot (plum-apricot), are genetically modified. Technically that is true, as all plants have been modified from their origins via natural selection and domestication as well as hybridization. But blending two different apple branches together, or pollen from one corn variety to pollinate another variety of corn, to get a better variety is not genetic engineering of the kind opponents want to stop or curtail. GE creates new organisms from one whose genes have been altered by the insertion of a modified gene or a gene from a non-related organism. These new organisms are known as transgenic organisms. “When genetic material from a different species is added, the resulting DNA is called recombinant DNA and the organism is called a transgenic organism.” This modification could be insertion of bacterial genes to protect a plant from the effects of pesticides like glyphosates (Roundup®) and glufosinates. It could also be the insertion of a soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) to make the plant produce its own insecticide for certain pests like corn borers. It could be inserting genes from a cold water fish into a tomato to make it freeze-resistant (not on the market).

The stated desire of GE is to make better food crops – better able to resist pests or disease, better nutrition, better weather tolerance, better yields. Sounds good, right? There are a lot of people in the world, many starving people – if this process helps feed us all it must be right and good. Certainly there is a lot of controversy, hype, name-calling, and confusion.  I do not claim to be an expert – even those who are can’t agree!  My intent is to point out some concerns that indicate caution and more objective research is needed, and why those who do oppose GE foods are not simply Luddites.

In my opinion, one of the most worrying elements of GE and GMO is the control and ownership of our food supplies by a few large corporate players. You may have heard of terminator seeds, where the seed left after harvest is sterile so the farmers have to buy the next year’s seed rather than saving seed for the next planting. Saving seed was the practice since humans first began to settle and plant crops. Biotech companies want to control the seed and the pesticides used on those crops and have a monopoly. “Buy our marvelous herbicide that will kill all the weeds in your fields. Oh, but you also will need our wonderful crop seeds that are resistant to the marvelous herbicide. And of course, next year we will be glad to sell you more of both.” GE crops accounted for 90 percent of all planted cotton acres, 93 percent of soybean acres, and 90 percent of corn acres in 2013. When Monsanto corn is 80% of the 90% GE corn acres in the US and Monsanto soy is 93% of the 93% GE soy acres in the US, it looks a lot like monopoly. According to a Food and Water Watch fact sheet, in 2014 Monsanto “now controls 60 percent of corn and 62.5 percent of soybean seeds and seed trait licenses in the United States.”

Are GE crops safe? That may depend on what is meant by “safe.” No people or animal have died within hours or days of eating GE foods, as they would if poison was ingested. And it’s likely we all have eaten some GMOs for many years and haven’t died. So to that extent GE crops are safe. But what if you extend the scope of “safe?” It’s the long-term safety and unknown effects on human, animal, and environmental health that have not really been studied. The FDA and USDA tell us these crops have been tested and no studies show correlation to disease, but most of the safety tests and studies were done by or commissioned by the manufacturers of the seeds and the pesticides that can be doused on them. Will these crops when converted to food ingredients and blended with other GMO ingredients cause unexpected allergic reactions? Will they alter the biology of the future offspring of animals who consume these crops as feed generation after generation? What about the effect of these crops on the environment? BT corn and other such crops are suspected in decline of bees and butterflies. Each species plays its role in the overall health of the planet. If some species are lost due to manipulation of crops genes, how are the roles of the species replaced? Does water run-off from the fields of these crops affect fish and other water life is some adverse way?

What about crop diversity? Winds carry the pollen of these plants to non-modified plants in the next field – and farmers of the non-modified crops have been sued by bio-companies for ending up with GMO crops in their fields, crops they certainly did not want. This contamination, combined with the heavy marketing of the alleged benefits of GE crops, eventually means fewer varieties planted. One cause of the terrible potato famine that caused the death or emigration of millions of Irish was lack of diversity of the potato varieties planted. In fact, while companies have been working on GE wheat for many years, it has never been approved for planting – yet GMO wheat was found growing in non-research fields in Oregon and in Montana. No word on how this happened.

But, you say, one of the promises of GMOs is less pesticide use. What about that? Well, actually pesticide use has increased, not decreased. This map shows the increases in the use of glyphosate in the US. In addition, it has become a widespread practice to use glyphosate and glufosinates on crops just before harvest to speed up the dry-down process. “Along with wheat and oats, glyphosate is used to desiccate a wide range of other crops including lentils, peas, non-GMO soybeans, corn, flax, rye, triticale, buckwheat, millet, canola, sugar beets and potatoes. Sunflowers may also be treated pre-harvest with glyphosate, according to the National Sunflower Association.” Due to super weeds – weeds resistant to glyphosate – some growers are returning to older, more harmful pesticides. As well, the USDA in September 2014 approved GE crops resistant to the combination of glyphosate and 2,4 D – Dow Chemical’s Enlist Duo – and use of Enlist Duo was approved, approval was revoked, then it was granted again.

So what about claims of improved nutrition of the food and higher yields? So far, no GMO food with enhanced nutrition is on the market. Golden rice, engineered to include beta-carotene, is developed and available for planting but faces much opposition for many of the reasons laid out in this article; also being resisted because vitamin A deficiency is not the biggest problem in under-developed countries where getting enough of all necessary nutrients is impossible for many people. Fear of corporate ownership is somewhat allayed by free licensing but within limits imposed by Monsanto.  Other ideas for enhancing specific nutritional qualities of foods are in research or are theoretical. Whether or not GE cops have better yields or not is less clear. “In the absence of pests, commercially available GE seeds do not increase maximum crop yields. However, by protecting a plant from certain pests, GE crops can prevent yield losses to, allowing the plant to approach its yield potential. Bt crops are particularly effective at mitigating yield losses.  On the other hand, evidence on the impact of HT seeds on soybean, corn, and cotton yields is mixed. Some researchers found no significant difference between the yields of adopters and non-adopters of HT; others found that HT adopters had higher yields, while still others found that adopters had lower yields.”

These are the crops currently grown from genetically engineered seeds: soy, cotton, corn, canola, sugar beet, papaya, yellow squash, potato, and alfalfa (for animal feed). If you wish to avoid as many GE foods as you can, buy these organically grown or from a local farmer who can be asked if the seed is GE or not. You will also need to recognize when derivatives from these vegetables is present in processed foods you buy. Corn is made into so many products that go into our food. This is why there is a strong movement to get food labeled when it contains GE ingredients. We know when a product contains peanuts, or soy, or gluten – why not GMOs? Those who care about GMOs can skip the product, those who don’t care can ignore the label. If the things I point out in this article concern you, get informed. PBS has an interesting page on this topic

20160426_coach thyselfCoach, coach thyself. That’s what I told myself a couple of weeks ago. I had been having uncomfortable digestive issues for some time; not constant but getting more frequent and more annoying. I knew I needed to step back and reset my digestion but was reluctant to get started. Always an excuse – “I’ll be traveling” “We are going out with friends” “There’s a party in a few days” – and so on. Doing a reset on digestion meant changing what and how we eat – lighter foods and certain foods eliminated – at least for a time. This was complicated by the fact that my husband has great digestion and didn’t really need to reset, although he sometimes has concerns about gaining weight. Since I cook most of our meals, making separate foods was not something I looked forward to eagerly. But there came a day when I was simply tired of feeling off-kilter and he too was feeling a bit heavy, plus spring is a good time to cleanse. So we agreed to go for it and the planning began.

I decided the first week the focus would be on eating light foods and would be an elimination diet. This helps lighten the overall load on my digestive system, and provides a clean slate to test certain foods for intolerances. So I eliminated all meat, dairy, eggs, fermented foods, added sugar, alcohol, beans, wheat, caffeine, and soy. We also switched to having our larger meal of the day at midday rather than evening. This may have been the biggest challenge for us, since our lives are so accustomed to daytime activities – work, errands, exercising, play – where we’ll grab a simple lunch and then have a heavier dinner at the end of the day. Many cultures have the main meal of the day at midday and studies have shown it to be a healthier way to eat if weight control is a concern. The theory in this is that you are more active throughout the day and thus use up the calories better. Then in the evening when relaxing and preparing for sleep, a less substantial meal is eaten.

So what did we eat, after eliminating all those foods? Well, there’s a huge world of recipe ideas and I tried a number of them. The first few days our meals were all vegetables; later in the week I added some dishes with grains, although no wheat grains. We had several soups, like borscht, cream of celery, cream of carrot, and spinach soup. All of those were homemade versions, using fresh vegetables and no dairy milk or oils. I made several grain dishes, using rice, millet, or barley, with a variety of vegetables and seasonings. One day I made wraps using collard leaves as the wrappers and filling them with a cashew ‘cream’, carrots and cucumbers and daikon radish in matchsticks, and some parsley leaves. Served these with a simple lettuce and grape tomato salad dressed with a bit of olive oil and lemon juice. We had a couple of variations of this simple but refreshing salad several times during this week, usually as the evening meal. Breakfasts were oatmeal or barley as cereal, or veggie smoothies. No snacking! We drank lots of water and I had herbal teas that were soothing for my tummy.

The worst day for me was day three – it’s when all my cravings kicked in and I really wanted some of my favorite Late July chips and a glass of wine! I was pretty cranky that day, but was over it by the next morning and realized I was feeling much better in my gut too.

After the first week I was feeling pretty good, and I decided it was time to start testing for food intolerances. I already knew dairy and I don’t get along but wondered if any other foods were causing issues. If you know me, you know I really like breads – craft breads, muffins, crackers, etc. None of that white, fluffy stuff, but most any kind of whole grain goodness.  I was afraid wheat had become a problem for me. Not gluten, as I had been eating gluten-containing grains throughout the week and felt fine. So it made perfect sense to me to test wheat first. My belly was feeling fine, and if wheat was going to be a problem it should certainly show up now. Test one: a piece of my yummy homemade whole wheat bread, toasted, with coconut oil spread on lightly. Just one piece, then wait and see. Felt fine all day. Next day, same test. Still felt fine. Next day, pancakes. Still good!! What a relief!

Second test was caffeine. Now, I am not addicted to caffeine, don’t even drink it daily. But I do like the ritual of making coffee and sitting with a cup, and I was missing that. So I made some coffee, and as I expected, no reaction, no issues.

Note that during these test days, I added no other omitted foods. One at a time and give each some time to check for reactions. I gave each re-introduction of omitted foods about two days of watching. I have not added all items back in yet, but so far, so good. Dairy will stay out of my diet and meat will remain a minor part. We don’t eat of lot of sugar-laden foods anyway, so they too will be a minor part of our diet. We are still eating lighter meals for the most part.

It seems that since none of the omitted foods have caused me problems since consuming them again, it may be that my system simply was overloaded. Maybe I have been eating too often and too fast, and because my digestive fire is not as strong as some people’s it just couldn’t keep up. I don’t eat a lot at one sitting but I eat frequently, and sometimes I eat too fast. So I was also more careful to slow down and chew more thoroughly, and I feel this helped along with focusing on lighter foods for all my meals. Not only is the bloating and cramping gone, but I also lost some of the belly fat I’d recently started to collect. Not my aim, but obviously my body is happier with the changes.

This is an example of how paying attention to your body and its signals can resolve many ills without medication or extensive tests. If after this testing period I still did not feel right, I would see my doctor to rule out more serious issues. But your friendly, neighborhood health and wellness coach is a good first step. I can help you figure out where and how to start, provide support when the process seems difficult, and cheer you on to success and feeling better. Working as a team with my husband as we are going through the process has been a huge help for me.


Image courtesy of sattva at