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Certain food and drinks can irritate the lining of the gut

The number of people who suffer from food intolerances has risen dramatically over the past few decades. While many people suffer from diagnosed food allergies where the consequences are obvious and usually immediate, many more suffer from some form of food intolerance which is much more ambiguous.

Even celebrities aren't immune. Actress Rachel Weisz has openly discussed her wheat intolerance, which takes bread, pasta, couscous, noodles, cakes and drinks such as beer and vodka off the menu.

And supermodel Rachel Hunter has said that taking a food-allergy test was the best thing she ever did. She now shuns lactose, which means keeping clear of milk and other dairy products.

Some experts have started referring to increasing cases of food intolerances as a 'modern epidemic' and while this may sound dramatic, it may not be inaccurate.

Understanding the ways in which your food choices and habits can affect your health and wellbeing is key. There is plenty of literature out there relating to food allergies, but many experts are reluctant to fully investigate and acknowledge the severity of food intolerances which are admittedly much more difficult to diagnose as the symptoms are delayed and less severe.

So, what has given rise to the increase in food intolerances, is it all in our heads?

Personally and professionally speaking I would say no.

Like many health practitioners, I believe that food intolerances are a product of modern unhealthy lifestyles habits.

So, which ones could be causing the problem?

Well, there are several obvious candidates. The following highlight a handful of commonly agreed factors that contribute to the majority of food intolerance cases.

1 SYNTHETIC FOODS Processed food has now become synonymous with modern living, from 'vegetarian meat' to 'squeeze cheese' and 'micro meals'. We have gradually become more accustomed to foods that are made in labs as opposed to kitchens. Of course, this exposes us to a veritable feast of man-made chemicals and additives that our bodies have never encountered before. Nobody really knows what effect they will have on our health in the long term, but the evidence that such foods play a significant part in food intolerance is already there.

In 1998, one of the UK's leading laboratories in food sensitivity found a 50pc increase in the number of people suffering from a soya allergy, this was the same year that genetically engineered soya beans came on the market.

Coincidence? I doubt it.

2MODERN STRESSeS One factor that undoubtedly plays a part in food intolerance is the way in which most of us now live.

Modern life has changed dramatically and its pace has truly quickened in recent years. This has given rise to a whole host of additional stressors.

Many of us are exposed to pollution and toxins daily, work long hours, sleep less than eight hours a night, have little time to eat properly and are too tired to participate in any form of exercise or relaxation.

All of these factors serve to weaken the body's immune system, which goes hand-in- hand with digestive problems.

3EXOTIC DIETS While evidence is still lacking, many people believe eating new foods from other countries and cultures may be a contributing cause of food intolerance. Nowadays, we're more likely to dine on Thai green curries than bacon and cabbage.

It is well documented that different cultures and ethnic groups are shaped by thousands of years worth of eating habits and evolution. For example, in countries where dairy produce has traditionally been consumed, such as Ireland, the incidence of lactose intolerance is very low at around 5 to 10pc of the population.

However, in places such as East Asia, where dairy produce has not been traditionally consumed, lactose intolerance affects around 90pc of the population.

This suggests that our bodies take a very long time indeed to successfully learn how to digest certain foods.

4ANTIBIOTICSImpaired gut health can be a major contributing factor in the development of food intolerances. More than 70pc of our body's immune system resides in our gut and is dependent on a delicate balance of 'good' and 'bad' bacteria to function efficiently.

Antibiotics cannot distinguish between 'good' and 'bad' bacteria so, therefore, kill off both. Hence a course of antibiotics often results in a yeast infection.

While no one would deny their great contribution to medicine, it is the over use of antibiotics that has most likely affected our gut.

CAN FOOD inTOLERANCE BE PREVENTED? As there is no single cause of food intolerance there is no single cure. However, below are a few tips on how you can minimise the likelihood of developing a food intolerance:

>EAT NATURAL It goes without saying that the best food comes out of the ground and not a laboratory. By sticking to whole natural foods that haven't been genetically altered you're likely to be eating foods, which can be digested and absorbed effectively.

>EAT seasonally Many foods available through the changing seasons contain specific nutrients to support the body through each season.

For example, oranges are in season during the autumn and provide a great source of natural vitamin C, which is vital for a healthy immune system in the winter months.

>mix it up a little People can become intolerant to the food they eat most often. For example, the average person will have cereal for breakfast, a sandwich at lunch and a bowl of pasta for dinner -- that's a whole lot of wheat in one day.

Variety is key to good digestion and health, so mix it up.

>avoid painkillers Prolonged use of over-the-counter medications such as aspirin and ibuprofen can have a detrimental effect on our digestive system. These types of drugs can increase gut permeability and ulcers in the small intestine, which in turn can wreak havoc on our digestion.

Due to the effect these drugs can have on the body, it is advisable to be extremely cautious when using them, especially if you have concerns about food intolerance.

Although different foods may irritate different people, the most common are chillies, onions, peppers, citrus fruits and high-fat foods such as cream.

Alcohol and caffeinated beverages such as coffee also cause irritation and inflammation of the digestive system. In addition, smoking can exacerbate matters as it interferes with stomach acid production.

>LISTEN TO YOUR GUT If you suffer from frequent headaches, abdominal discomfort, diarrhoea or constipation and find yourself relying on digestion tablets then you need to take action.

In my opinion, the elimination/ reintroduction diet is still the most accurate when done properly. It's best done under the guidance of a registered nutritionist or dietician.

This method can be quite laborious and requires some sacrifice but the results are often well worth the effort.

Elsa Jones is a nutritional therapist and presenter of How Healthy are You? on TV3. Elsa offers one-to-one consultations. www.elsajonesnutrition.ie