Food intolerance is when the body reacts with discomfort when eating certain foods. This can be unpleasant, but the quality of life does not have to suffer. Learn here what is behind food allergies and food intolerance and how they mitigate the effects..
Flatulence, diarrhea and nausea after eating are familiar to many. In about 20% of the population, they even occur regularly after eating certain foods – one then speaks of a food intolerance. In this case, the body reacts to certain ingredients contained in food. These reactions occur particularly frequently with gluten, sugar and various proteins.
Despite the relatively high frequency, those affected should not take this problem lightly. As the body reacts to certain ingredients, the absorption of nutrients may be restricted. In the long term, this can lead to deficiency symptoms, which is why clarification by a specialist is strongly recommended.
Food intolerance: causes and symptoms
Intolerance reactions to food are either congenital (hereditary) or develop during life. In the former case, the body is usually more severely affected. In general, two different mechanisms come into play that trigger similar reactions to certain foods.
In an allergic reaction, the body’s immune system is hypersensitive to certain ingredients in foods and forms immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies. These trigger defense reactions to remove the allergen from the body as quickly as possible. Such reactions occur in about two to six percent of the population and are usually triggered by various food proteins.
Food intolerance occurs when enzymes for digesting certain ingredients are either completely absent or present in insufficient amounts. The result is the breakdown of the corresponding ingredient into degradation products that cannot be utilized by the body. A prominent example of this is lactose intolerance, in which the enzyme lactase is missing for the breakdown of milk sugar.
Often the symptoms of these two forms of intolerance are similar, which is why it can be difficult for the layperson to distinguish between them. In addition, there are special cases such as histamine intolerance or the so-called Chinese restaurant syndrome, the specific classification of which is still disputed even among experts.
Typical symptoms of intolerance
As a rule, food intolerances are characterized by symptoms typical of irritations of the digestive system, such as loss of appetite, flatulence and abdominal pain. These are often accompanied by diarrhea or constipation, flatulence, and in some cases vomiting. In the case of a food allergy, classic allergy symptoms such as watery eyes, sneezing and coughing irritation, and scratching in the throat and pharynx may also occur.
Although in most cases these symptoms are at most perceived as a nuisance by those affected, intolerance can sometimes be a serious problem: If it remains untreated, or if those affected have no alternative but to abstain from food, the body may, in the worst case, lack nutrients. This can lead to weight loss and deficiency symptoms in the long term. Although a change in diet is basically the right approach, this should always be done with consideration for a balanced diet.
Allergy or food intolerance – typical forms of food intolerance
A food allergy is usually triggered by foreign proteins found in various foods. Particularly common in industrialized countries are allergic reactions to nuts and legumes, as well as wheat, milk, eggs, soy and seafood.
In addition to the symptoms typical of food intolerance, these are characterized by a number of additional points. These include, in particular, redness and swelling, as well as itching, in areas that have been in contact with the allergen. In addition, in severe allergic reactions, sweating, dizziness and palpitations may occur.
In contrast, food intolerance, the more common form of food intolerance, is due to an enzyme deficiency. In other words, the enzyme responsible for breaking down a particular food component is missing. Experts differentiate types of food intolerance according to the type of ingredient that the body cannot metabolize.
Gluten intolerance occurs when the breakdown of the gluten protein contained in cereals is not possible. If affected individuals consume foods containing gluten, this can lead to bloating and diarrhea. In the long term, exhaustion and nutrient deficiencies may also occur. Gluten intolerance can occur without warning and is not limited to a specific demographic group. However, it is often a temporary condition that disappears just as unexpectedly.
Often the term gluten intolerance is mistakenly used as a synonym for celiac disease or wheat allergy. But these two forms refer to other forms of intolerance that are characterized by an immune response to grain products and require permanent abstinence from gluten. The diagnosis of gluten intolerance is therefore made by excluding immune reactions that would be indicative of celiac disease and wheat allergy.
If the body lacks the enzyme lactase, which is responsible for breaking down milk sugar (lactose), lactose intolerance is present. Characteristic of this is nausea after eating dairy products containing lactose. This is often accompanied by abdominal pain, diarrhea, flatulence, and a feeling of fullness, as well as nonspecific symptoms such as headache or fatigue.
In the case of fructose intolerance, the body is unable to break down fruit sugar (fructose) or can do so only to a limited extent. In addition to fruit, this is contained in vegetables, beer and confectionery, among other things. Symptoms of fructose intolerance vary in character and severity depending on the type.
In fructose malabsorption, the body produces reduced amounts of the enzyme that breaks down fructose. This results in fructose not being absorbed in the small intestine. Instead, it enters the large intestine where it is broken down, leading to the formation of gas, resulting in bloating and diarrhea. In some cases, this intestinal fructose intolerance passes – otherwise, a low-fructose diet is required.
Hereditary fructose intolerance
Hereditary fructose intolerance, on the other hand, is more severe but less common. This congenital form of intolerance becomes apparent as early as infancy. Affected individuals lack the enzyme fructose-1-phosphate aldolase, which is required for the breakdown of fructose in the liver. This causes fructose to accumulate in the liver, which can lead to liver and kidney damage and become life-threatening.
China Restaurant Syndrome
The so-called China Restaurant Syndrome is a pseudoallergic reaction, the causes of which are as yet unclear. As a possible trigger, the flavor enhancer monosodium glutamate comes into question – however, this is not scientifically proven. Typically, headaches and pain in the limbs, dizziness, sweating, skin rashes and chest tightness with palpitations occur with this digestive disorder.
Histaminosis, histamine intolerance, represents another special case among food intolerances. This is a degradation disorder of the biogenic amine histamine, which functions as a neurotransmitter and tissue hormone. Among other things, it is responsible for regulating blood pressure and the sleep-wake cycle, as well as for controlling immune reactions.
If the concentration of histamine exceeds a certain threshold value, various processes are disturbed. This is particularly the case if the body does not produce sufficient quantities of the enzymes histamine N-methyl transferase and diamine oxidase (DAO), which are responsible for breaking down histamine. This problem is exacerbated by the use of certain medications, as well as the consumption of foods that either contain histamine, its precursor histidine, or other biogenic amines themselves or release them into the body. Particularly aged, fermented, or fermented foods such as wine, beer, long-aged cheese, and sauerkraut contain high concentrations of histamine.
Histamine intolerance: typical symptoms
Histamine intolerance is particularly common in middle-aged women. Because histamine controls a variety of processes in the body, the symptoms of histamine intolerance also vary greatly from patient to patient. In particular, the following symptoms occur sporadically or in combination with each other:
- On the skin, excess histamine can cause itching and hives, each lasting up to 24 hours.
- In the brain, histamine leads to a dilatation of the blood vessels – headaches, dizziness and nausea are the consequences.
- Also, cardiovascular disorders can occur as a result of histamine intolerance. If the coronary vessels are affected, this leads to mostly harmless abnormalities such as extrasystoles (“heart stuttering”) and palpitations (palpable heartbeat) as well as palpitations. Conversely, vascular dilatation in the limbs can cause blood pressure to drop. In rare cases, this results in symptoms of shock.
- In addition, histamine regulates the production of gastric acid and the activity of muscle cells in the gastrointestinal tract. An excessive histamine concentration can thus lead to abdominal cramps, flatulence and diarrhea.
- After eating foods and beverages with a high histamine content, some sufferers experience symptoms in the respiratory tract. These include, for example, a runny or stuffy nose. In rare cases, it may also come to asthma attacks with appropriate predisposition.
Due to the wide range of symptoms, many doctors find it difficult to correctly diagnose histaminosis. Many of the symptoms are non-specific, so they do not allow conclusions about a specific clinical picture. At the same time, they strongly resemble those of other intolerance reactions, which is why those affected often receive the diagnosis late.
The path to diagnosis – and the consequences thereof
The path to a correct diagnosis begins with self-initiative. If you notice that complaints regularly occur after eating certain foods, you should start keeping a food diary. Also document the quantities you consume and the reactions that occur. Experimentation, on the other hand, is not advisable: as long as an allergy cannot be ruled out, foods that trigger discomfort should be avoided as far as possible.
Professional advice on food intolerance and allergies
At the same time, it is advisable to seek the advice of a specialist as soon as possible. The food diary can provide initial guidance and allows the doctor to draw conclusions about the general direction of the intolerance, which can speed up the correct diagnosis. For a more accurate diagnosis, a food allergy usually needs to be ruled out first. For this purpose, a number of different methods exist that make it possible to identify allergens on the basis of the reaction of the immune system.
In the further course of the examination, the intolerance is narrowed down. Some forms of food intolerance are diagnoses of exclusion – direct detection is difficult. Other forms can be detected by blood copper levels, which are indicative of enzyme activity, or by blood tests for histamine or the enzyme responsible for its breakdown, DAO. If a genetic predisposition to enzyme deficiency is suspected, it is possible to identify it by genetic diagnostics.
Curing food intolerance – is it possible?
In short, no – unfortunately, in most cases it is not possible to cure food intolerance. In the case of allergies, desensitization is possible in principle, but whether this is useful must be clarified in each individual case. Treatment therefore focuses largely on changing the diet in order to alleviate the symptoms. In this context, we will advise you on which alternatives, if any, offer similar health benefits. For example, soy milk could be a substitute for cow’s milk in cases of lactose intolerance.
If reduction of acute symptoms is indicated, our anti-histamine infusion is an option. It provides faster elimination of histamine and thus a reduction in histamine levels in the tissues. This helps to alleviate the symptoms and to improve the general well-being again. We would be happy to explain the exact mode of action to you in a personal conversation and find the right path to more quality of life together with you.