Tolerating Intolerance, Digestively Speaking

“Wait. Can we stop for a minute? Are you saying that a food intolerance is different than a food allergy?” Everything I thought I knew before I walked into the doctor’s office came to a screeching halt; words like anaphylaxis, reflux and skin rash floated around like alphabet soup.

“Yes, there are distinct differences,”said Dr. W, using his hands to illustrate two ideologies. “An allergic reactioninvolves the immune system and at its worst, could result in death. No one will die as a result of food intolerance.”

He made it sound so simple but I was resisting the notion because I was still dumbfounded by the diagnosis he announced.

“Also,” he added, “an allergic reaction will typically be observable, presenting itself externally — in the form of a rash on the skin or an anaphylactic response, while an intolerant reaction will manifest internally.

Our oldest of three children is nearing his sixteenth birthday and he’s battled digestive issues for most of his life. On the flip side, in his words, he has an “iron bladder” and can “hold it” for as long as he needs to. Why take time to “go” when he could continue doing something more fun?” he’d ask. Eventually developing the same tendency with bowel movements, my husband and I began to see a pattern in some of his behaviors. To clarify, he’s an adventurous eater, never afraid to try new foods. But while he eats a healthy variety, quantity has become a topic of discussion. Historically, we’ve considered his discomfort to be a result of over-indulgence.

Over the years, we visited specialists to address emotional and behavioral concerns, also noting our observations when he resisted elimination. His demeanor seemed to drastically tank when his body was full of toxins. We noticed that his ability to process information quickly would digress, frustration would emerge, self-talk would become inflammatory. But we never witnessed him having an allergic reaction to food or environmental elements, not even seasonally.

Not one doctor, therapist, psychologist or counselor ever validated our suspicion or suggested the possibility that one or more foods in his regular diet could have the ability to trigger psychological or physiological repercussions.

In the meantime, we tried a host of recommended options to reduce symptoms of emotional instability and physical discomfort. All provided limited relief for him, assisting with improvement—but none uncovered the root cause, buried deep; shooting challenges that sprouted new challenges in every direction of his life, until one instinctive decision changed everything.

At our son’s age, having dealt with these issues for what feels like forever, he’s used to feeling lousy. And he’s learned to tolerate it. Sometimes he tolerates it passively, sometimes he doesn’t.

On a whim during this past summer break, I called a random allergist from our insurance plan. Due to a cancellation, he could be seen the next day. If we couldn’t make that appointment, it would be three months until the next available new patient time slot. We accepted.

Many of the intake questions seemed to cast doubt on the decision to see another specialist. No— our son had never struggled with reflux, asthma, hives, eczema, choking or swelling. Dr. W was kind, informative and experienced; he patiently suggested that we start with a skin test and go from there. But, based on our conversation, he said he felt fairly confident that nothing would show up and he’d likely refer us to a gastroenterologist for further consultation.

It was our first experience with allergy testing. None of the five in our family had any concerning symptoms, so naturally, I took a picture of my son’s bare back to document the occasion. The sixty allergen pricks were aligned on a make-shift grid, defined by columns and rows from an ink-pad stamp. Within seconds, red-splotching emerged in certain areas of the grid on his back.

What did that mean? Maybe the redness was nothing. I wasn’t sure exactly what type of reaction a skin-test would yield. As minutes passed, the redness increased. Some of the flat prick-spots became raised. His body was definitely reacting, so again, I snapped a picture.

I’ll never forget the look in my son’s eyes when he saw what I’d quietly watched for the minutes that lead to that one.The pricks on his back had blown up in eight key areas. Our shared surprise spoke volumes without either of us voicing a single word. He reached for my phone to examine the picture more closely. Never once in his earlier years, did we consider the fundamentally life-changing knowledge that came from that simple skin test.

Until that moment, we didn’t know that the healthy variety of foods we provided for our son to eat throughout his life, included foods that his body couldn’t effectively tolerate. This awareness launched a new journey of learning, food elimination and documentation; creating food combinations that mimicked some of his favorites (now known intolerants) with others that his body can properly digest.

Dr. W, admittedly surprised, educated us on the true possibilities of false positives. He concluded with a logical plan for us to test the validity of the results, including a food diary to track meals during a 30-day elimination period. Fortunately, our son left the office feeling optimistic—he’d witnessed proof that certain foods may be negatively contributing to his overall health. Willing to make concessions, at least for the recommended month, he noticed subtle changes immediately, enticing him to continue with the plan.

Every bodily system can be effected by food intolerances, from the most superficial to the deepest layers of the body. With each new bit of information, we’ve been able to identify more correlations with our son’s earliest struggles. The alphabet soup in my thoughts, once containing words isolated within the boundaries of allergic reactions, now includes fatigue, bloating, anxiety, brain fog—all symptoms of his food intolerances, along with the identified food names.

We knew his symptoms and spent years trying to identify the root cause. Yet, while every step was in the right direction, thissoup du jour offered a new flavor.For now, tolerating intolerance isn’t his only option. This new information also brought renewed hope, and we are so grateful.

K.H. Finder is the author of "Don't Judge A Girl By Her Mother" (2016). An alumni of Arizona State University, she works as an educator, blogger & copywriter, volunteers in the community and loves to travel.She lives with her husband and three children in Chandler, Arizona.

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