RESEARCHERS from University College London have just found evidence for the first time to link food intolerances and serious illness.

A six-month programme has shown strong links with foodstuffs and Crohn's Disease, and Ulcerative Colitis (UC).

GMTV resident health expert and author of several books, LIZ TUCKER, who suffered herself with ME explains just why this seemingly specialist research is a breakthrough.

AT last, the world is waking up to the idea that there is now proper medical evidence to link food intolerance and serious illness. But why should we be so surprised?

Food is the fuel we need to run our lives and if we put in the wrong type, our health is going to suffer.

There's is no doubt as to the links already between food and health - just look at obesity which causes 12,000 - 15,000 new cancers each year - so why shouldn't what we eat be a big factor in our health further down the illness chain?

There undoubtedly needs more research, but the links are there.

The recent discovery by UCL doctors could prompt medical review into diagnosis and treatment across a range of conditions, from bloating to headaches. To date, many GPs have told their patients that food intolerance is largely in the mind'. It should be in their minds for the reasons of getting better.

I know, as some time ago I suffered from ME for 4 years, lost my job and it became a living nightmare of constant pain and debility. But it is hard to get people to take you seriously when all you look is a bit tired.

Fortunately I made a full recovery and the new understanding I received inspired me to retrain as a health professional.

So what do most of us need to know? Well, it can be confusing, so I tend to view it in simple, bite-sized chunks.

What is a food intolerance?

A food intolerance is an inappropriate unhealthy reaction to a specific food that normally should cause no threat to health at all. This reaction can lead to a diverse array of symptoms such as IBS, ME, migraine, skin problems, digestive disorders, cystitis, fatigue, weight problems or just a general feeling of "unwellness."

Why is it different from a food allergy?

Food allergies also prompt an immune response but because they trigger a different kind of antibody, the immune response is different. With allergies, sufferers experience an immediate, alarming and sometime life threatening reaction to foods that the majority of people can eat without any problem at all. With a food intolerance, the reaction is very different as the food generally has to pass through the digestive system first before an immune response is instigated. This results in a delayed reaction of hours or even days and the symptoms are much more general, less severe but more likely to result in a chronic health condition. A food intolerance can also be due to enzyme deficiencies which prevents the break down of food for absorption as found in lactose intolerance.

Why are they so difficult to detect?

The severity and rapidness of a food allergy makes the diagnosis of "something you have just eaten" pretty compelling. Sufferers know that if they keep clear of that food there is no reason why they cannot lead a healthy life. Also allergies are generally something we are born with and stay with us throughout our life. The delayed and relatively mild reaction of a food intolerance makes it very difficult to associate negative symptoms such as abdominal bloating or fatigue with something you ate 12 hours ago. Also as the symptoms can relate to so many other health conditions, isolating food as the problem is difficult. If food intolerance is disregarded, sufferers carry on for years with a chronic condition or poor health because they are probably eating the offending food every day.

Finally, to make it even more confusing, food intolerances can develop at any age and have multiple reasons why occur. In some case they can be overcome but generally allergies will stay consistently throughout your lifetime.

How can a food intolerance develop?

There are many reasons why a food intolerance can develop, some we know about and some remain for the time being a bit of a mystery. Like allergies they can be a genetic fault in the immune system that sends out the wrong signals to attack perfectly harmless food molecules instead of harmful pathogens. Food intolerances can also develop through prolonged poor health. This could be anything from contracting a nasty stomach bug while you are on holiday to a resistant infection that results in long term antibiotics. Some cases occur not from a specific health problem but from general unhealthy lifestyle practices over a long period of time. Factors such as continuously eating a nutritionally poor diet with high intakes of sugar, saturated fats and salt, processed and heavily refined foods, caffeine, alcohol and smoking combined with high levels of stress, anxiety, lack of activity, positive stimulation and quality relaxation can all unite to undermine the health of your digestive system and its ability to function effectively. There appears to have been a dramatic rise in suspected food intolerance linked to today's modern manic lifestyles, leading to increased interest in the subject.

Is food intolerance treatable?

There are two approaches to overcoming the negative symptoms of food intolerance. Initially the aim is to, as with allergies, isolate the offending foods to offer symptom relief but unlike food allergies, in the long term there is a possibility that you can eat those foods again, even if it is only in moderation. The problem with food intolerance is it is very difficult, even following an elimination diet, to isolate the offending foods. The quickest and easiest way to confirm if food intolerance is a problem for you and what they are is to have a test. There is a whole range of tests available but very few have any scientific history or clinical validation to them and it is very important to select a test that not only gives you accurate results but also provides information, support and after care.

If you have isolated your offending foods, eliminated them from your diet and are experiencing improved health, then you need to address your health long term. Remember with many food intolerance cases it is often unhealthy lifestyle practices that result in digestive problems and food intolerances. Healthwise, the benefit from religiously following your food intolerance elimination diet are greatly reduced if you still smoking 20 a day and eating nothing but junk food and fizzy drinks because there could be other factors involved in your ill health. For full health restoration, combining a healthy diet, stress management, time out to have fun, relaxation and activity with your food intolerance diet plan is the most effective way of returning you body back to full health.

For further advice on food intolerance testing

How do I know if I have a food allergy?

Unlike food intolerances, for most allergy sufferers there condition is only too obvious. As symptoms are generally so rapid it doesn't take many reactions before a sufferer spots the connection and learns to avoid the allergen. But as usual things aren't always that straightforward. For example, people generally do not get a reaction the first time they come into contact with an allergen. The first contact is when the body builds up its resistance so that when contact is made the second time, it can generate a large response. Also in childhood allergic reactions can fluctuate as the child builds up its immunity, meaning they can grow out of it when they reach adulthood.

Questions to ask yourself are:

How quickly did the reaction start?

Are they always at the same intensity with the same allergen?

How was the food cooked, stored and prepared?

Are symptoms seasonal or have any other common environmental factors?

Do conventional treatments such as antihistamines help?

These will help you establish if it is a pure allergy or if other factors are involved. There are also tests available but as with food intolerance, make sure you go for a test that has a science background and clinical validity, preferably with some dietary support.

How can I manage my allergy?

Fortunately there is an awful lot you can do yourself that can help you avoid allergic reactions. Obviously the most obvious is to avoid the offending food or stay away from environments containing allergens. But of course this is not always easy and many sufferers also become expert food label readers or seasonal botany experts.

As with any health condition, caring about your overall health is also a priority as factors such as smoking, high intakes of alcohol, poor diet or stress can really exacerbate your symptoms.

People with severe allergies need to take precautions such as always carrying a pre- loaded adrenaline pen. With allergies, knowledge is power, the more you know the more you will be able to help not just yourself but also how to advise others of your condition.

New and exciting research and approaches to both food allergies and intolerances makes the future look promising for sufferers, so look out for these on the internet!