Keeping a detailed diary can be one of the cheapest and most accurate ways of diagnosing an intolerance. A diary can also provide valuable evidence of symptoms when you approach a doctor or dietician. The more detailed the diary, the more likely you are to spot problem food and products – especially if you have multiple sensitivities. A sample diary can be found below. You don’t have to use it – any format will do, use a notebook or whatever is easiest for you.
Aim to record everything you do, and everything you eat and drink.
Include snacks and titbits, times and places. Make a note of brand names in case you’re reacting to something in a particular product. Make a note of any immediate reactions and indicate how soon they occurred after eating or after an activity. Be aware symptoms could be caused by environmental allergy.
Look for a pattern
You should start to notice a pattern in symptoms after two weeks, especially if you regularly do the same activities, use the same products or are on a food rotation diet. However, if you are suffering from multiple intolerances or environmental allergies, it might be harder to correlate specific foods, products or activities with particular symptoms if you are using/eating them all the time. Vary the products you use and see if it makes a difference. In the case of food intolerance you may want to consider trying an elimination diet or a non-medical test. You could also record the weather to see if you are worse at times of high pollen or moulds.
What tests are available?
Doctors can test for IgE mediated allergies (classic allergies) but this rarely shows up non-IgE food or chemicals sensitivities. Some reactions are immediate and unmistakable but symptoms that occur hours or days later may go unnoticed, creating a riddle of poor health. Some supportive Doctors may be able to help you carry out an Elimination Diet to test for food intolerance. There are also several non-medical tests that claim to diagnose food and chemical sensitivities, but none have yet proved 100% accurate in independent trials. They include ELISA, ALCAT, Vega testing, hair root testing, Applied Kinesiology and dowsing. The accuracy of these methods often depends on the experience of the practitioner. However, in the absence of any medical alternatives, such tests can provide some guidelines as to which foods or chemicals to suspect as long as you use common sense. Once you have the results, you can try excluding the food and assess reactions yourself.
Once you have identified the likely culprits exclude them for a while to see if there is an improvement in symptoms - continue to keep the diary. Once the symptoms have gone you can carefully retest the product to check your suspicions were right. Sometimes sensitivities disappear after avoiding the product for a few weeks. You don’t need to carry on avoiding something if it doesn’t cause a reaction. Toiletries and cleaning products can be replaced with fragrance-free, low chemical products – look for environmentally friendly products as they are likely to contain fewer petrochemicals.
More about food intolerance:
Around 80% of people with chemical sensitivity also suffer from food intolerance. Reactions can occur anytime from when the food is eaten to when it is excreted. Make a note of how you feel and of any specific symptoms, three or four times a day; record how you feel physically and emotionally. You may want to include how you felt when the food was being cooked as some sensitivities can be triggered by smell. Particularly note any of the following as it could indicate a developing intolerance: mood swings; cravings; foods that make you 'feel good'; food that suddenly tastes or smells unpleasantly strong; food that tastes unusually delicious. Often it is the food you can’t ‘live without’ that is making you ill. List any changes in bowel movements as food intolerance can manifest as bloating, constipation or diarrhoea.
Once you have a list of suspect foods, an elimination diet can help to affirm your suspicions – ask your doctor for help with this or try the book: Food Allergy and Intolerance by Jonathan Brostoff and Linda Gamlin. It is wise to test foods twice before eliminating them from your diet in case you are actually reacting to an environmental allergy or simply have another illness. If you appear to have multiple food intolerances you should consider eating your remaining 'safe' foods on a rotation diet. Always replace excluded foods with another tolerated food. Cutting foods out of your diet is likely to lead to malnutrition and an increase in sensitivities and poor health.
If your symptoms are immediate and severe or include a rash, swelling, or difficulty breathing you may have a classic/ true (IgE) food allergy. Avoid that food completely and see your doctor to get tested.
Food intolerances are likely to change, so try retesting foods every 6 months. However, before making any major changes to your diet consult your doctor or dietician, and don't forget to take your diary with you!
Download example sensitivity diary