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 your body is intolerant to sugar, which is more likely to be what's ailing you.
So 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. "And what happens is, when you are allergic to a certain protein that’s in a food item, your body’s immune system is mistaking that protein for a foreign invader, like a virus or bacteria, so it just automatically sends out or releases chemicals to fight off this protein and the chemical that is released unfortunately [causes] your body to break out in hives or cause an allergy reaction." 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 that is food intolerant, they are intolerant to that specific sugar and that means that your body is unable to or [has] problems digesting that sugar," Jones explains. That's not to say that they don't cause problems of their own, but they won't kill 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.
Bloating is never comfortable. You just feel puffy and lethargic and, well, gross. If your body is struggling to digest a particular sugar, whether it's lactose or something else, it can cause you to bloat as that sugar tries to make its way through your digestive system, Jones says. If you tend not to notice when you feel bloated, the good news (or bad news) is that you'll likely have other, perhaps more noticeable symptoms as well.
Excess gas can also be a sign that you're intolerant to sugar, as registered dietitian Vanessa Rissetto tells Romper by email. Taking medications that help alleviate gas might help mitigate the problematic symptom, but it won't help with the underlying intolerance, so you might want to avoid whatever sugar it is that resulted in you feeling slightly gassier than usual.
Feeling more anxious lately? While you may not think that a sugar intolerance could be the cause, as naturopath Kristen Swales tells Romper by email, your anxiety actually could indicate that your body isn't handling an influx of sugar all that well. Cutting back on your sugar intake could help relieve that anxiety and help you feel more grounded.
Rissetto notes that nausea can also be indicator that you have a sugar intolerance, especially when paired with other gastrointestinal symptoms like gas and bloating. "In some cases, the best solution is avoidance," naturopathic physician Dr. Jennifer Stagg tells Romper by email. That can be a difficult proposition, but if it helps you feel better, it might be worth it.
Stomach cramping is never ever comfortable — or easy to ignore. Sugar intolerances, like lactose intolerance, can cause intense stomach cramping, Jones remarks. It makes sense, if you think about it. Your body can't digest it well, and so when it shows up in your digestive system, things go a little haywire. According to Stagg, "if it’s an issue with glucose regulation, then eating sugar as part of a meal containing fat and protein will slow down the absorption of sugar in the intestinal tract." Think about how your pairing your foods, as well as what you're specifically eating.
Surely you've experienced a sugar crash before, after eating a bit too much of it. According to Swales, however, major energy dips after you eat sugar might also indicate that your body isn't handling it well. If this is your only symptom, it doesn't necessarily mean for sure that you have a sugar intolerance, but it could be an initial hint that something else is going on.
Sugar causes inflammation, which isn't good for your body. Swales says that sugar intolerances can cause joint pain and inflammation in particular, but, it can also just cause inflammation in general. "Inflammation is an underlying factor in most chronic diseases," Stagg says. For that reason, it's important to be cognizant of how much sugar you're eating, whether you're intolerant to it or not.
Sleep is super important for your overall health, but, annoyingly, there are a lot of things that can interfere with it, whether it's too much caffeine, a lumpy mattress, or a baby that requires your middle-of-the-night attention. According to Swales, a sugar intolerance can also cause you to experience night sweats. Night sweats are uncomfortable and embarrassing, and leave you exhausted in the morning because no one can sleep soundly if they're sweaty and overheated.
'There are a wide range of symptoms that can happen if you are not tolerating sugar well — you could experience hyperactivity or shakiness a while after eating foods high in sugar," Stagg says. If you feel shaky — not just energized — after eating sugar, it might mean your body doesn't handle it well. Looking at the type of sugar you eat, the amount, what you eat it with, and how you eat it might help you feel better, but, as Jones emphasizes, seeing a doctor or allergist and working with a dietitian are the best ways to not only know for sure if you have an allergy or intolerance, but manage it too.
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