The Many Faces of Food Intolerances

We all know that eating healthy food is essential to maintaining our health. But sometimes, what is healthy food for one person, can be a cause of physical distress for another. Deciphering which foods are causing problems can be a frustrating task. But in my 24 years of practicing naturopathic medicine, I’ve found that helping my patients to identify and eliminate food intolerances can often be a powerful key to unlocking better health. 

 The trouble is that often, people’s food intolerances don’t fit the usual stereotype of a person who has an immediate and dramatic reaction to certain foods like peanuts or shellfish.  Those immediate hypersensitivity reactions are usually easy to identify and can be tested. But there are about 15 different ways that people can react to foods, and only a few of them can be tested through conventional lab tests. 

 The most common food reaction I see is delayed hypersensitivity reactions. I have helped countless people overcome eczema by identifying food reactions. Sinus or mucous-related conditions are often aggravated by food reactions, as are many digestive issues. Chronic fatigue and “brain fog” are red flags that food sensitivities may be at play. There are tests available through naturopathic physicians that can begin the process of elimination and reintroduction needed to pin down the culprits. 

 Celiac disease is actually an autoimmune disease in which gluten triggers a variety of symptoms that are digestive, neurological, psychiatric and autoimmune. A blood test or upper intestinal biopsy can diagnose this often overlooked condition. 

 In some people, the issue isn’t so much allergies as it is an inability to digest certain foods properly. For instance, people with a (fixable) microbiome imbalance in the small intestine can have excessive fermentation of certain starches which then creates gas, bloating, diarrhea, constipation and more. The foods most likely to ferment have been categorized under the acronym FODMAP foods, which include lactose-containing dairy products, onions and garlic, beans, cabbage family vegetables and more. 

For my patients with chronic hives, flushing, digestive issues, headaches, anxiety and more, we also look at the possibility of a histamine intolerance. There are certain foods that contain histamine, which is normally broken down by the body. Foods that are aged or fermented like deli meats, yogurt, beer, wine and others can be especially triggering. 

Oxalates are naturally high in spinach, strawberries, rhubarb and more.  For people with chronic bladder pain, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, and kidney stones oxalates can be a trigger. The intestinal microbiome is supposed to metabolize the oxalates in our foods, but an imbalance in the microbiome can prevent that process, causing a building up of oxalates in the blood and urine. 

Food additives can cause an incredible range of symptoms from temper tantrums, hives, swelling, migraines and more.  Key culprits to consider are MSG (there are many ways food manufacturers hide MSG on food labels), sulphites (used as a preservative in dried fruit, wine, vinegar, commercial baking) and nitrates (found in deli meats, bacon, ham, and food dyes. Artificial sweeteners like aspartame can create issues for some, as can the sweeteners called sugar alcohols like sorbitol and maltitol. I especially see the latter causing gas and diarrhea.  

 Acidic foods can trigger irritation of already sensitive tissues. For instance, excessive orange juice intake can trigger bladder issues, and acid reflux can be triggered by caffeine, alcohol, tomatoes and more.  

 Salicylates are naturally occurring chemicals in fruits, vegetables, spices and some medicines. But for some people, they can trigger asthma and allergies as well as digestive distress and headaches. 

 So if you have a dead-end diagnosis like Irritable Bowel Syndrome, chronic headaches, asthma or Chronic Fatigue syndrome or you just don’t feel your best, consider investigating the array of food intolerances as a possible way to unlock some of your health and vitality. 

Naturopathic physicians have extensive training in nutrition and regularly use custom nutrition plans as medicine.  We make sure that you know what you CAN eat as well as help you pin down specific foods to avoid.

Understanding Food Allergies and Sensitivities

Have you noticed that more and more people are avoiding certain foods for health reasons?  It turns out that food allergies and intolerances are more common than we once thought. Identifying and eliminating food allergies can solve a broad range of health problems.  I have had hundreds of patients find that once they learn to eat a diet free of their triggering foods, they can get off prescription medications and enjoy much better health.  It turns out good scientific studies are backing up this treatment method.

The symptoms of food allergies can be obvious, such as when people have anaphylactic reactions to peanuts or shellfish.  These food allergies are usually easy to identify.  Other allergic reactions are much subtler and can be delayed, making it challenging to figure out which foods are causing symptoms.  For instance, acid reflux is commonly aggravated by eating certain foods, but the reaction may come the next day.  I have had many patients who determine that dairy causes their sinus congestion, but it may take two days for their sinus headache to set in.  Therefore, to identify most food allergies, careful testing and dietary experiments are necessary.  Food reactions can range from fatigue, depression, post nasal drip, ear infections, constipation, diarrhea, skin issues, headaches, joint pain and more.  In my twenty years of naturopathic medical practice, I have found that helping people eliminate food allergies has been one of the most successful interventions that we can make to help people feel better with less medication.   I am happy that medical science is confirming my clinical experience in several studies on food allergies.

Children who get ear infections often have food allergies that cause excess mucous in their middle ear, setting them up for infection.  A clinical study showed that 94% of ear infection prone children who avoided their food allergies had fewer ear infections.

Many factors can cause migraine headaches, and food allergies can be one of them.  In a study of chronic migraine sufferers who avoided food allergies, 85% became headache free.  In another study, patients with rheumatoid arthritis who avoided food triggers fared much better than the placebo group who ate normally.  In a follow-up study 10 years later, of the 100 rheumatoid arthritis patients who avoided food allergies, one-third were still well on a food allergy free diet alone, without medication, which is remarkable.

Irritable bowel syndrome is a condition I see frequently and know it to respond well to naturopathic treatments, including food allergy elimination.  In a study published in the Lancet medical journal, 14 out of the 21 patients with IBS who went on a hypoallergenic diet for one week became symptom-free.

Celiac disease is a special type of food intolerance where the immune system not only reacts to gluten, but it can send out anti-bodies that affect healthy tissue, like the intestinal lining, the brain, the thyroid and more.  Screening for this food reaction is available through an MD or an ND through blood testing, and a diagnosis can be confirmed by a biopsy taken by a specialist.  Anyone with digestive issues should be tested, but so should people with autoimmune, neurologic and psychiatric conditions. For people with Celiac disease, avoiding gluten containing food, such as wheat, can be life changing.  While true Celiac disease is uncommon, more people have non-celiac gluten intolerance or a simple wheat intolerance.  These people also fare better off wheat and / or gluten containing foods.

While it may take some careful testing and experimenting to figure out which foods are contributing to a health issue, it is certainly worth the additional effort.  When I coach my patients on how to avoid their food allergies and enjoy healthy alternatives, they are often thrilled that something so simple can make such a difference to their wellbeing.

Dr. Deidre Macdonald is a naturopathic physician whose practice is in downtown Courtenay.

Mental Health and Naturopathic Medicine

The Integrative Approach to Mental Health

One’s mental health is a reflection of both the mind and the body. There are effective, long term strategies to improve mood, increase energy, decrease anxiety, and balance neurotransmitter function. Creating an individualized program to address the underlying causes of mood and mental disorders is a powerful path towards greater health and happiness.

When I am working with a patient who is suffering from mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, of psychiatric illness, the first step is to do a thorough health assessment. The brain is an organ like the liver, heart and lungs. For the brain to function optimally, it needs to be supported by a healthy physical body. Much insight can be gained through a good history, physical exam, and assessment of lab work. Getting to know the patient, their goals, and their history helps us to co-create a program to enhance mental and physical health.

The next step is to address possible underlying causes of physical and mental issues. When the body is supported to function at its best, there is greater balance in the body and mind. Each of the following medical issues can profoundly affect mood and mental functioning.

Nutritional deficiencies – Patients receive coaching on how to optimize their food intake, focusing on creating a diet that fuels the brain at every meal. Specific nutrients are required for optimal functioning of the neurotransmitters that govern mood and more.

Hormone balance – Changing levels of estrogen, progesterone, testosterone and more can affect our mood and both mental and physical functioning. Naturopathic programs to enhance hormone function naturally or with bio-identical hormones can provide a much needed boost.

Thyroid levels – Assessing the thyroid is a complex task requiring detailed knowledge of the biochemistry of the body. Often low thyroid levels are missed, and this common cause of mood disorders is overlooked. Naturopathic strategies to optimize thyroid function help to increase mood, energy, mental acuity and more.

Digestive Issues – Without optimal digestive function, the brain function will be compromised. The digestive organs are where we take in the nutrients essential for neurotransmitter function. It is also where we eliminate waste and toxins from the body. Many patients experience better mood, greater mental acuity, and increased energy when their digestive concerns are addressed in a real and lasting way.

Food allergies – Many people don’t know that there are foods they eat that are creating fatigue or worse symptoms. In fact, at least 30% of people with schizophrenia are allergic to gluten (celiac disease), vs. only .3% or the total population. Celiac disease can decrease circulation to the brain, cause atrophy of parts of the brain, and cause calcifications of the brain. Proper assessment of celiac disease and coaching on the complexities of gluten elimination, are essential for recovery in these people.

Adrenal function – The adrenal glands produce hormones like adrenalin and cortisol that are intimately linked with brain function and nervous system regulation. Chronic stress, chronic pain, excess stimulants and allergies can all deplete or deregulate the adrenal glands. With a program of lifestyle changes, pain management, and natural medicines, the adrenal glands can become better regulated. Anxiety is reduced, energy is enhanced and mental processes are optimized.

Pain – Chronic pain is a major source of depression for many people. Naturopathic physicians are trained in physical medicine and can assess and treat chronic pain with a variety of techniques. Laser therapy is an excellent choice for degenerative and arthritic issues, as well as other muscle / tendon / nerve issues. A program to reduce inflammation in the body can help to reduce pain and enhance health.

Sleep Issues: Insomnia can rob you of your vitality and push a delicate nervous system seriously out of balance. Many people can overcome insomnia through good sleep habits, relaxation techniques, behavioural therapy and natural medicines. Pharmaceutical medicines are a last resort and are associated with a significant increase in pre-mature death from cancer and other causes.
The next step in overcoming mental health issues is stress management coaching and counselling. I’ve spent many years developing a powerful tool kit for helping patients manage stress and enhance their resilience to life’s challenges on the physical, emotional and spiritual planes. For instance, at the Macdonald Centre for Natural Medicine, I lead weekly relaxation classes. During this nine week series of noon-hour classes participants experience guided visualization for self healing and mindfulness training. Alternatively, patients can enjoy individualized relaxation sessions. During these one-on-one sessions, I discuss the patient’s particular stresses then guide them through an individualized relaxation and visualization session. Patients feel relaxed and refreshed and come away with practical tools for coping with daily life. More in-depth trauma counselling, addiction counselling and marriage counselling is available through an in-house referral to a trained counsellor.

Finally, there are natural and pharmaceutical medicines that can enhance the nervous system and balance neurotransmitters. I work with patients to help them assess all their treatment options, from herbal medicine, amino acid therapy, nutritionals and pharmaceutical medicines. 

Dr. Deidre Macdonald is a licensed naturopathic physician who has been practicing for 16 years in downtown Courtenay. She received her psychology degree from UBC and her medical doctorate from an accredited naturopathic medical school in Portland, Oregon. For more information contact her office at (250) 897-0235 or via this website.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome: An Irritating Problem!

Cathy sought out naturopathic medical care for problems with her bowels. Ten years of problems had left her drained and frustrated. She knew where all the public bathrooms were everywhere she went and lived in fear of “accidents”. She suffered from alternating constipation and diarrhea, embarrassing gas, abdominal pain and bloating and she generally felt tired and toxic. Her conventional medical doctor had done tests to rule out cancer or serious disease and labeled her symptom picture Irritable Bowel Syndrome. She was given a variety of medications to counteract her symptoms. Laxatives for constipation, anti-diarrhea medications, antacid pills all helped in the short run, but after 10 years Cathy was no closer to understanding why she felt the way she did or how she could help herself get out of this painful cycle.

Cathy’s case is not unusual. Approximately 15% of the population has Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and many more people experience similar symptoms. IBS is characterized by abdominal pain or bloating, constipation and/or diarrhea, gas, nausea, and is often accompanied by varying degrees of anxiety or depression. Since many other conditions can mimic IBS, it is important to rule out more serious diseases like cancer and colitis.

The naturopathic approach to treatment is very different from the conventional methods because our goal is very different. While conventional medicine treats symptoms with drugs, naturopathic doctors seek to understand why the body is creating these symptoms and correct the underlying imbalance. There are several potential causes of IBS that affect people in varying degrees.

The most common cause of IBS that I have observed clinically is food allergies or intolerances. With proper identification of offending foods and coaching to change the diet, many of my patients have found lasting relief from their symptoms. Another common cause of intestinal distress is a disturbance in the bacteria that line the intestine. Antibiotic use coupled with a high sugar diet can result in an overgrowth of yeast and fungus in the intestine. The result is often gas, bloating and irregular stool, as well as fatigue and other mental symptoms. This condition can be rectified by specific dietary modifications and by working to re-establish the healthy bacterial balance in the intestine.

Often IBS is a result of a poorly functioning upper digestive system. If the stomach lacks adequate hydrochloric acid, foods are not broken down properly and can cause symptoms in the lower digestion. This condition is common as we age. Symptoms to look for of low stomach acid are:

  • Fullness after eating
  • Belching or flatulence after meals
  • Indigestion, constipation or diarrhea
  • Iron deficiency
  • Multiple food allergies
  • Weak fingernails

I have had many patients complain of IBS after having surgery to remove their gall bladder. The gall bladder stores and regulates the secretion of bile, the fluid used to digest fats. The bile is made in the liver but if the liver is toxic, the bile it makes will also be toxic and caustic. The “toxic bile” takes its toll on the gallbladder, and the conventional solution to gall bladder problems is to simply remove it. Now that same “toxic bile” is now able to drip into the intestine in an unregulated fashion. The intestine becomes irritated by the bile and lets us know by presenting with the symptoms we call Irritable Bowel Syndrome. The naturopathic approach to this health challenge is to treat the underlying cause by detoxifying the liver to help it to make better bile.

In Cathy’s case, after a thorough physical exam, we did some blood work and tested her for food allergies and yeast overgrowth. She had taken antibiotics for a series of infections many years ago and had a significant yeast overgrowth. She was allergic to wheat, rye and bananas. She did not have a personal history of gall bladder problems, but her sister and mother had had their gall bladders removed. Cathy was coached on a program to reduce her yeast, change her diet, cleanse her liver and soothe her irritated bowel. With natural medicine alone, she became symptom free for the first time in many years. Not only did her bowels improve, she reported feeling much more energy and mental clarity. She was able to take charge of her health by getting to the root cause of the problem!

Dr. Deidre Macdonald is a naturopathic physician with a natural family medical practice in downtown Courtenay. Her office can be reached at (250) 897-0235 or via this website

Attention Deficit Disorder

By 6 years old, Jason had been labeled with attention deficit disorder. By 8 he was having trouble in school both academically and socially. The other kids didn’t understand his overly aggressive behavior and were irritated by his repeated outbursts. Teachers were frustrated by his lack of concentration and his inability to stay on task. At home, impulsive and aggressive behavior resulted in many sibling squabbles and his parents were at their wits end as to how to get through to their child. The school was pressuring Jason’s parents to pursue drug therapy for their son. His parents thought ‘we aren’t comfortable with giving our child drugs to suppress his behavior, but we have to do something to help him function better.’

That was the point that they sought naturopathic medical care. Naturopathic doctors are primary care physicians with full medical training plus extensive expertise in natural medicines. The first step in Jason’s treatment was a thorough evaluation of his mental, emotional and physical state. Next, the doctor looked carefully at his medical history to assess whether there were events that could have contributed to creating an imbalance in Jason’s body that might cause behavioral problems. Then a program was embarked upon to remove any underlying causes of those problems. Jason was tested for food allergies, which in his case were numerous. His parents observed marked behavioral improvements within weeks of avoiding these specific foods. Any slips ups (which the doctor called “food experiments”) increased Jason’s irritability and impulsivity dramatically. Other nutritional supplements were recommended to enhance brain and nervous system function, and a program was done to correct an intestinal imbalance caused by repeated use of antibiotics. Within 3 months of treatment, Jason’s parents felt that they had their son back and the teachers were reporting steady improvements. Not only were his parents thrilled with Jason’s turn around, they felt good that they had dealt with the underlying causes of their child’s problems without having to use drugs to suppress those problems.

Children are being treated with drugs for what we label attention deficit disorder at an alarming rate. The number of children on drugs for ADHD has increased dramatically.. In some schools, 30% of the boys are on Ritalin-type drugs. As Jason’s case illustrates, naturopathic doctors attempt to address the cause of problems in a holistic manner. Potential physical factors that can contribute to ADD / ADHD are:

Many children have received long-term benefits from addressing these and other issues under the care of naturopathic physicians. Each child deserves to be treated as an individual and given the chance to improve their health in a real and lasting way.

For more information on attention deficit disorder or naturopathic pediatric care, contact Dr. Deidre Macdonald at 897-0235.

Treating Sinusitis Naturally

In my practice, I have many patients who come for help with chronic sinus congestion. It can be a frustrating and painful condition that can last a lifetime if not treated with the long term in mind. The medicines conventionally used may be okay in the short run, but they have significant issues with long term use. For instance, nasal steroids thin the lining of the nasal mucous, making it more susceptible to bleeding and infection. Fungal infections in the nasal passages are present in 52% of people with chronic sinusitis and are can be caused by long term use of steroid sprays. Antibiotic use creates increased fungal infections throughout the body, including the sinuses and the digestive system.

In treating sinusitis, the goal of naturopathic physicians is to relieve the symptoms using natural medicines (which often have side benefits instead of side effects). In addition to symptom treatment, naturopathic physicians also endeavor to determine the underlying causative factors that are driving this chronic congestion and inflammation. Most patients with sinusitis are aware that they have allergies to inhalants like pollen and dust. However, there may be other factors in one’s health that contribute to the conditions. For instance, in my experience, many of my patients with chronic sinusitis also have bowel problems. There is a link between these two conditions, in that both can be caused by food allergies.

I saw a patient, Rose, who presented with a 15 year history of nasal congestion, reoccurring sinus infections and she also had been diagnoses with “Irritable Bowel Syndrome”. I suggested that we start our treatment by addressing the bowel. We tested her for food allergies through our non-invasive and effective technique called Vega testing. I coached her on how to make dietary changes and how to heal the lining of her intestines. Within a few months, she was delighted to report that not only were her bowels much improved, she was breathing freely for the first time in years. She said, “I realize that after all these years, my chronic sinus inflammation was my body’s way of reacting to wheat”. Of course not all cases are so one dimensional, but a thorough investigation health issues is essential to uncovering the clues that will lead to long term success in treating this condition.

Another often overlooked factor for people with chronic sinus conditions is that unresolved dental issues can result in disease spreading to the sinuses. Patients may not realize that an old dental extraction may be harboring an infection under the healed gum tissue. I have also seen a disturbing number of men with chronic sinus infections and allergies that started shortly after working around excessive amounts of sawdust. The sawdust likely assaults the nasal mucosa, allowing antigens to permeate through it and trigger the immune system to create allergic symptoms. Getting to the bottom of the problem, instead of being satisfied with short-term quick fixes is essential for the patient who wants to improve this condition, once and for all.

There are many layers in the naturopathic treatment of chronic upper respiratory problems. First, we must find ways to help with the immediate symptoms while we are investigating the deeper disturbances in the immune system that are causing the problem. Naturopathic treatments for sinus infections are aggressive and varied. We must focus on reducing the inflammation and congestion that impair circulation and set the stage for bacterial infection. There are effective ways to reduce congestion using herbs, hydrotherapy and nutritional supplements. We also want to address the inflammation of the sinus and nasal passages and bromelaine gives good results. Natural anti-histamines, like nettles and quercitin are nutritious as well as effective alternatives to drugs. Addressing the fungal and bacterial infections often chronically harboured in the upper respiratory passages is essential. Infections are best treated without drugs that damage other organs, but rather natural medicines like oil of oregano, goldenseal or tea tree oil that are gentle and effective.

The real strength of naturopathic medicine is that is addresses the underlying causes of health problems and treats symptoms as the body’s intelligent response to a stress. For sinus problems, the search for underlying factors often leads us to look at food allergies, candida yeast overgrowth in the digestive and respiratory systems, and dental issues. In my clinic, we offer Allergy Desensitization using homeopathic medicines in a fast and effective procedure. Please call for a handout on this topic. Naturopathic doctors also coach their patients on how to build their immune systems through optimal nutrition, herbal, nutritional and homeopathic medicines. The body wants to heal so sometimes we just need to listen to its clues and give it tools to help it succeed.

For more information, or to book a visit to start your personalized program, please contact Dr. Macdonald’s office at (250) 897-0235 or via this website. Dr. Deidre Macdonald is a naturopathic physician with a naturopathic family medical practice in downtown Courtenay.