Food Intolerances: Causes, Symptoms, Treatments
Food intolerances, also called food sensitivities, have become one of the most prevalent issues people face these days, with a variety of gastrointestinal and skin problems which leave them feeling helpless and frustrated. Getting to the bottom of their issues and fixing their problems with food is crucial in order for them to heal and start feeling better.
Until lactose and gluten intolerances started gaining popularity, many people weren’t aware that even healthy foods could cause digestive distress, let alone be the culprits of random skin breakouts. Thankfully, we are now raising more and more awareness around this topic, normalizing the fact that eating gluten-free isn’t a fad, but a real health necessity for some people.
Food Intolerances vs. Food Allergies
First and foremost, it’s important to differentiate food intolerances and food allergies as many people believe they’re one and the same.
- Food intolerances – show up when your digestive system isn’t able to process and break down certain foods. They cause gastrointestinal issues, bloating, gas, and an upset stomach but in most cases, they aren’t life threatening.
- Food allergies – affect the immune system that releases antibodies in order to fight the food it perceives as a threat. This shows up as an allergic reaction which depending on the intensity, can be pretty serious, even deadly.
- Autoimmune conditions – some autoimmune conditions are followed by specific food intolerances such as celiac disease and gluten, exacerbating your symptoms and potentially causing serious complications down the line.
When it comes to food allergies, they are easier to notice as they’re usually coupled with skin rash, hives, or breathing issues, and they are addressed with specific antihistamin medications in order to prevent your body from causing an immune reaction. Food intolerances, on the other hand, can’t be treated with medication, although some may be relieved with digestive enzymes.
Common Food Intolerances
Even though one can be intolerant to basically any food or food group, there are some food intolerances that are more common than others. These include:
- Gluten intolerance (found in wheat, rye, barley, sorghum, and sometimes oats)
- Lactose intolerance (found in dairy)
- Histamine intolerance (naturally occurring chemicals in some foods that are produced by bacteria during food storage and fermentation)
- Egg intolerance
- Intolerance to nightshades (eggplants, peppers, tomatoes)
- Salicylate intolerance (natural chemicals found in plants that help them defend against pathogens)
- FODMAP intolerance (fermentable oligo-, di-, mono-saccharides and polyols, which are short-chain carbohydrates found naturally in many foods)
- Sulfites intolerance (chemicals used as preservatives in many different foods and food products, drinks and even some medications)
Among all of these food intolerances, there are two that are the most prevalent, and currently the most researched. These are intolerances to gluten and dairy.
Also called Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity or Non-Celiac Wheat Sensitivity, gluten intolerance occurs when your body cannot process and break down gluten, causing digestive distress. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, rye, sorghum, sometimes oats, and a variety of different products such as soy sauce and teriyaki sauce.
Its role is to bind and hold food particles together, so it acts as a natural thickener and “glue” which is why it’s added to many sauces, pre-made soups, dressings, and spice rubs. Unlike in celiac disease, where your body mistakes gluten for a pathogen and tries to fight against it, non-celiac sensitivity simply shows up as gastrointestinal distress due to the fact your body struggles with breaking it down.
This may show up as bloating, abdominal pain, increased gas production, constipation, diarrhea, skin breakouts, headaches, fatigue, and other connected symptoms. The exact causes of gluten intolerance are unknown. Some people are born with it and some develop it later in life, but there is a plethora of studies out there trying to get to the bottom of this and figure out why does this protein affect your digestive system in such a way that it causes illness and distress.
The treatment for gluten intolerance is simple: abstain from gluten. Unfortunately, there isn’t an actual cure for gluten intolerance nor an enzyme you can take to help you digest it properly. Some companies are working hard on hacking this major food intolerance, but until this date, there hasn’t been any conclusive evidence that their discoveries yield positive results.
The difference between someone with celiac disease and non-celiac gluten intolerance is that the first need to avoid gluten forever and the second might not need to. Most doctors have an approach that recommends avoiding gluten for a certain amount of time so your body can lower inflammation and intense symptoms, but with the possibility of re-introducing gluten-containing foods in a later stage of treatment. If the symptoms reappear, that’s when following a gluten-free diet indefinitely is your best option at managing this uncomfortable disorder.
Gluten is a protein and lactose is a sugar. It’s usually found in dairy and all products containing it. Sometimes, it can be added to sauces, dressings, and desserts as a powder thickener, making the foods creamier and silkier.
The main cause of lactose intolerance is your body’s inability to break it down. It happens because your small intestine doesn’t produce enough of the enzyme lactase which has a role of properly processing lactose.
The symptoms usually show up immediately after ingesting lactose and they most commonly affect your digestive system. They include nausea, vomiting, gas, constipation, diarrhea, abdominal pain, bloating, and a burning sensation in the stomach.
Lactose intolerance is caused by the lack of lactase, but it’s actual cause is unknown. Some people have it since they’re born and others develop throughout their life, but it’s believed it runs in the family.
Currently, there is no known treatment for lactose intolerance other than abstaining from lactose, and that’s why many companies are removing lactose from their dairy products and creating lactose-free milk, cheese, yogurts, and even ice cream.
However, if your intolerance isn’t causing really intense symptoms, you can try taking lactase in pill, powder, or liquid form before you eat or drink something containing lactose. This might give you a good chance of not developing any symptoms, especially if you’re being careful and observant with your serving sizes.
Diagnosing Food Intolerance
In order to figure out if you’re dealing with a food intolerance or not, you should perform a food sensitivity test. There are now plenty on the market you can buy and easily perform at the comfort of your own home, without the need to see a doctor.
The two most commonly used tests are:
- Mediator Release Test (MRT) – measures your reactivity to certain foods
- Antigen Leukocyte Cellular Antibody Test (ALCAT) – basically does the same thing as MRT but comes as its predecessor
Antibody-based blood tests are usually not effective for food intolerances because they measure your production of immunoglobulin G (IgG) antibodies to foods, which only show up in the case of a food allergy, not intolerance.
Still, in many cases, your results may be inconclusive and false as they depend on a variety of factors such as how much of the targeted food you’re eating, how severe are your symptoms, what are your lifestyle habits that can affect it, your stress levels, and so much more. That’s why performing an elimination diet under the guidance of your healthcare provider, together with a microbiome test from a stool sample will give you much more insight into which foods may be detrimental to your health, causing discomfort, distress, and inflammation.
Food Intolerances and Complications
Even though exact causes of food intolerances aren’t known, there are some diseases and conditions which can potentially make you more prone to food sensitivities. These include the aforementioned celiac disease, as well as Chron’s disease, irritable bowel syndrome, ulcerative colitis, Hashimoto’s disease, and rheumatoid arthritis.
Even though they are not caused by food intolerances, in many cases these trigger foods can increase the level of inflammation and severity of your condition, wreaking havoc on your digestive system and causing potentially irreparable damage of your gut lining. That’s why it’s extremely important to rule out any of these diseases, especially if your food intolerance diagnosis is confirmed.
Vitamins and Minerals
In many cases, food intolerances as well as food allergies can cause a deficiency in certain vitamins and minerals so make sure to address this concern and find a way to supplement and nourish your body. No one can function properly if their micronutrient intake is impaired. Whether you do a full micronutrient panel to check on your levels or perform another test, listen to your doctor’s recommendations and find the best supplements with the highest quality ingredients.
Even though they’re unpleasant and often cause pain and intense symptoms, food intolerances aren’t life threatening and they can easily be managed through proper diet and discipline. Still, it’s important to know you’re not dealing with a food allergy or another more serious underlying condition that might be serious and potentially deadly.
Pay attention to what your gut is telling you and find the optimal foods you can thrive off of instead of struggling with the ones that you’re unable to break down properly.