Understanding Gastrointestinal Intolerance

Food intolerances are hard to track, but it’s estimated that 2-20% of people suffer from them. Unlike an allergy, which involves a reaction from your immune system, intolerances involve the gastrointestinal tract. In the 30 minutes to 48 hours after eating a food that you’re truly intolerant to, you experience uncomfortable symptoms, including nausea, diarrhea or constipation, gas, and bloating.

At GastroDoxs, board-certified gastroenterologist Bharat Pothuri, MD, helps people in the Greater Houston area identify their food intolerances and find very real solutions to overcome them. Treatment usually involves avoidance of problem foods, but healing your gut with enzymes or medications is sometimes possible. Plus, he can help you determine if you have an intolerance or another condition such as irritable bowel syndrome or inflammatory bowel disease.

We share more about gastrointestinal intolerances and how Dr. Pothuri can help you find your trigger foods.

Is it an allergy?

First, you should be sure that your food reactions aren’t an allergy. An allergy prompts the immune system to go into overdrive against substances that are normally harmless. Common food allergies include fish, shellfish, peanuts, tree nuts, milk, wheat, soy, and eggs.

A tiny quantity of an allergen can cause a near-immediate reaction, such as a rash, swelling, trouble breathing, and digestive upset. In severe cases, a food allergy can lead to life-threatening anaphylaxis. 

If you have an allergy, it’s important you avoid the food altogether. If you’re threatened by anaphylactic shock, carry an epinephrine pen in case you accidentally ingest an offending food.

A gastrointestinal intolerance is different

Food intolerances don’t activate your immune system like a food allergy does, and they  generally aren’t life-threatening. However, they can cause extremely uncomfortable gastrointestinal symptoms.

In the case of a food intolerance, you can eat a normal-sized portion of a food to which you’re intolerant. Any symptoms show up later – anywhere from 30 minutes to a day or two later. Then you’ll have an adverse reaction to the food, which is probably caused by trouble digesting the food or its components.

An intolerance causes digestive distress, not an allergic-like reaction. You may experience nausea, abdominal pain, diarrhea, and bloating. These symptoms aren’t typically life-threatening, but they sure can be unpleasant and keep you from enjoying everyday life.

Examples of intolerances include lactose intolerance, in which consuming dairy products causes bloating, gas, and diarrhea. Lactose intolerance occurs in people who lack enough of the enzyme lactase to help them digest the sugar in milk, called lactose. 

Another type of intolerance is non-celiac gluten intolerance. With this condition, people find that eating gluten – a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye – causes digestive distress, such as bloating and fatigue. Unlike celiac disease, non-celiac gluten intolerance does not cause long-term damage to the small intestine.

A note about celiac disease

Celiac disease is not a true allergy or intolerance. It’s an autoimmune condition that can have systemic effects. If you have true celiac disease, consuming even a small amount of gluten triggers your immune system to attack your body. 

Due to eating gluten, the villi that line your small intestine are damaged, and you can no longer absorb nutrients effectively. This leads to widespread inflammation that causes digestive symptoms, rashes, and an increased risk of disease, including coronary artery disease and small bowel cancers.

Why do I have a food intolerance?

Oftentimes, a gastrointestinal intolerance occurs because you lack the ability to digest or fully metabolize a food. For example, a lack of lactase causes lactose intolerance (dairy intolerance). Similarly, poor enzyme production contributes to impaired carbohydrate digestion, which is an intolerance to consuming large quantities of foods like bran, beans, fruits, or certain types of sugars.

Another possible cause of intolerances is a deficiency in the enzyme diamine oxidase(DAO). This enzyme typically deactivates histamines in certain foods, such as alcohol, cured meats, spinach, and yeast products. If you have low DAO levels, you may experience flushing, headaches, and digestive distress when eating histamine-rich foods. Certain medications and diseases can block DAO production.

In many cases, the reason you experience an intolerance to a certain food isn’t fully understood.

If you’re experiencing symptoms, get tested

If you consistently have reactions to certain foods, or feel regularly bloated, gassy, and fatigued, and suffer irregular bowels, consult with our office. You should have a full workup to ensure you don’t have an allergy, celiac disease, or inflammatory bowel disease, which require specific treatments and monitoring.

If an intolerance is suspected, Dr. Pothuri may recommend an elimination diet that removes most commonly offensive foods from your diet to resolve symptoms, and then adds them back gradually to see what causes a reaction. This dietary approach is methodical, and it’s effective in helping relieve gastrointestinal symptoms.

At GastroDoxs, we know that gut health is critical to your overall well-being. If you’re in the Houston, Texas, area and want to have your gastrointestinal symptoms assessed, call to set up your appointment or book it online

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