If you have even the tiniest hint of a sweet tooth, you likely know the exact ins and outs of how indulging in sugary-sweet treats makes you feel — for better or for worse. Feel particularly terrible after a holiday party, night out, or one too many trips to the candy and donuts in the break room, and you might start to wonder if your body actually doesn't handle sugar all that well. While sugar allergies are possible, they're rare, but there are a lot of signs you have a sugar intolerance, which is more likely to be what's ailing you.
“Sugar can cause inflammation in the gut, which could cause an ‘intolerance’ like bloating, cramping, stomach pains, and possibly even a runny stomach,” registered dietician Danielle Venter tells Romper. Symptoms usually appear pretty soon after eating your sugary treats. Generally, the signs will show up about two hours later, but sometimes it can take four to six. “It depends on how much of the food the person ate, as a small amount may cause no reaction,” she explains. “Some symptoms like bloating or a headache can even take one to two days to show. Usually, in an elimination diet, we would wait 72 hours to see if any reactions occur.”
Can you be allergic to sugar?
What's the difference between an allergy and intolerance, anyway? "When a person is allergic to a food item, it’s not so much that they’re allergic to the sugar, but they’re allergic to some type of protein that’s in that food," Charmaine Jones, registered dietitian and founder of Food Jonezi, tells Romper. When this happens, your immune system attacks the protein because it thinks it’s a foreign invader like a virus or bacteria. The chemicals released to do the attacking can cause your body to break out in hives or have another kind of allergic reaction like swelling, tightening of the airway, shock, or a fast heart rate. Food allergies can be life-threatening. They're no joke.
Food intolerances, on the other hand, aren't usually life-threatening. "[I]f a person is food intolerant [to sugar] ... that means that your body is unable to or [has] problems digesting that sugar," Jones explains. That's not to say that food intolerances don't cause problems of their own, but they won't severely hurt you.
There are probably more things that can qualify as "sugar" than you realized. Lactose, maltose, dextrose, sucrose, and the like are all forms of sugar. The -ose suffix can help you figure out if something might be a sugar, so it's handy to keep that in mind when reading labels. If you think that you're intolerant to sugar or sugar alcohols — Jones says some people are extra sensitive to those as well — there are a few things you need to look out for. And your gut is at the center of it all.
Sugar intolerance symptoms
There are a lot of signs to look out for if your think you may have a sugar intolerance that go beyond a simple sweets-induced headache. The best way to really test out what’s causing any annoying symptoms is an elimination diet — if you feel better cutting out sugar, it may be a sign your body does not love trying to digest the stuff due to an intolerance.