For some students, the new school year means the start of stress and sleep deprivation. But for those falling asleep in class, their professor may not be to blame. According to some doctors, fatigue and other symptoms could be caused by something more insidious than a cold, a flu or even a food allergy: a food intolerance.
Health Canada says food allergies occur when the immune system mistakenly treats certain proteins as harmful. This causes a number of symptoms like runny nose, hives and anaphylaxis, which involves the swelling of the windpipe. In Canada, common allergens include peanuts, tree nuts, sesame seeds, milk, eggs, fish, soy, wheat, sulphites and mustard.
According to research cited by Health Canada, seven per cent of Canadians self-report having food allergies.
“That might be an appropriate percentage for food allergies,” says Victoria naturopath Dr. Lisa Polinsky, a UVic alumnus who practices at Victoria’s Sage Clinic. “But for intolerance, it’s much broader. You won’t see a statistic on that.”
The terms “food allergy” and “food intolerance” may be used interchangeably in daily language, but they aren’t the same thing. Unlike a food allergy, food intolerance doesn’t involve the immune system. Health Canada says intolerance means the stomach can’t digest certain foods. For example, people who are lactose intolerant lack the proper stomach enzymes to digest the sugars in milk. Intolerances to lactose, gluten and fructose are common.
Polinsky says aside from digestive issues like nausea and bloating, a food intolerance can affect the whole body. This could include mental and emotional issues like poor concentration and anxiety, skin rashes and joint pain. For women, menstrual cramps may also be symptoms.
Conversely, Victoria physician and allergy specialist Dr. Liliane Gendreau-Reid says digestive issues and migraines are the only symptoms of intolerance. She says intolerances are harder to detect because sometimes you react and sometimes you don’t. Food intolerances can’t be detected with conventional allergy tests.
“Allergists are not trained to test for intolerances, so they can get missed,” says Gendreau-Reid.
Both doctors agree that food allergies, as opposed to intolerances, are easier for people to determine on their own because symptoms usually appear within moments of eating a certain food.
“You will know when you have an allergy,” says Gendreau-Reid, who notes many of her patients are allergic to food preservatives.
UVic graduate Leia Smoudianis realized her body reacted to dairy while completing her master’s degree at Western University.
“I was nauseous every day, especially in the mornings,” says Smoudianis. “I was also so fatigued and would often waste an hour or two in the afternoon lying down or having a nap. I felt very guilty and tried to compensate by drinking more coffee, but it didn’t help.”
For Polinsky, food intolerance is an important issue affecting young people because most consider the symptoms to be normal. She also suggests students have increased food intolerance during the school year due to stress.
“I think a lot of people aren’t feeling optimal health, and I think that they could,” says Polinsky. “If somebody has lower energy, digestive issues, hay fever, hormonal imbalance, menstrual cramps, headaches, it means something is wrong. It’s really about getting to a place of understanding why.”
Smoudianis says her symptoms affected her studies.
“[My nausea] affected my mood and made me anxious. I wasn’t giving my studies all of my attention and was worried it would affect my grades,” says Smoudianis.
Individuals suspecting food allergies or intolerances can see a doctor, who may refer them to an allergist. Naturopaths do not require a referral. Laboratory tests can be conducted to determine if someone has an allergy, but for determining intolerances, Gendreau-Reid recommends keeping a food diary to document what food you eat and what happens afterwards.
After determining possible intolerances, Polinsky suggests eliminating those foods for four weeks and then slowly reintroducing them in small amounts.
“My family doctor suggested I cut out dairy for a while . . . and within a couple of weeks I started to feel better,” says Smoudianis. “I stopped drinking coffee because my doctor suggested that as well. I thought it would be hard because I love cheese and coffee, but surprisingly it wasn’t at all.”
Beyond food intolerances:
General dietary tips for students
Maintaining good health during the school year can be a challenge. But according to registered dietitian Jessica Robertson, who practices at Victory Health and Wellness on campus, eating well throughout the school year is essential to working and thinking as efficiently and effectively as possible, especially during exam periods.
Robertson and naturopath Dr. Lisa Polinsky of Victoria’s Sage Clinic have some pointers to help you stay optimal.
Eat your vegetables
This tip may sound clichéd, but Robertson says the majority of her clients are university students who lack fruit and vegetable intake.
Practice the “plate method”
Make half your plate vegetables, one quarter of your plate starch/grains and one quarter protein. “The more colour on your plate, the better,” Robertson says. “Natural, unprocessed colour, that is.”
Avoid convenience foods
Instead, choose fruits, vegetables and snacks that have a source of protein to keep you satiated for longer. “Scones, muffins, pizza slices and fruit squares . . . have a lot of calories and not a lot of nutrients,” says Robertson. “Make sure your snacks include at least two of the four food groups in them. Fats and sweets are not one of the food groups!”
Curb the carbs
“If you have more carbohydrates, the [mechanisms that balance blood sugar in the body] have to work harder,” says Polinsky.
Polinsky says, “Being conscious of having protein in your meals helps to balance your blood sugar.”
Decrease your caffeine intake
Try replacing coffee or energy drinks with teas such as green or rooibos tea. “Long term, [energy drinks and coffee] are going to affect the immune system. They stress the body. The adrenal glands balance the body in response to stress, and if the adrenals are constantly pushed, you’re going to have a lower immune response overall,” says Polinsky. “So more likely you’ll get colds and flus, and they’ll last longer, or your energy will be lower.”
Remember that how you eat now has repercussions
Polinsky says, “University can be a life-changer for a lot of people because a lot of the habits are set up during these few years, often significantly affecting an individual’s health for a long time.”