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Stomach Pain? Is it a Food Allergy or Intolerance?

Stomach Pain? Is it a Food Allergy or Intolerance?

Stomach pain isn’t fun. And not knowing the cause only makes matters worse.

It’s easy to feel confused, especially since food intolerances, food sensitivities and food allergies can all cause abdominal symptoms such as discomfort, diarrhea, and gas.

So, when looking to get some relief from food allergy stomach pain or undesirable symptoms from food intolerances, where do you start? How do you know when your symptoms are attributed to an intolerance or allergy? What foods are most likely to be problematic and what testing can be done to confirm a diagnosis? We understand your questions and are going to provide you with all the answers.

The first step to relief is understanding the difference between an allergy vs. intolerance. There are a few key distinctions that can help you identify the cause of your cramps or other undesirable symptoms and once identified you’ll be on the road to relief.

What’s the Difference Between Food Allergy and Food Intolerance?

A food allergy is an adverse immune response to a normally harmless food, whereas food intolerance is an abnormal chemical reaction within the digestive system. 

Food Allergy — Immune System

Food allergies can cause severe or even life-threatening allergic reactions, known as anaphylaxis. Most food allergies are IgE-mediated. This means if you have a peanut allergy, your immune system identifies the proteins in peanuts as ‘foreign invaders’ or allergens. The immune system then produces antibodies called Immunoglobulin E (IgE), in an attempt to defend the body. These antibodies interact with cells triggering the release of pro-inflammatory chemicals, called histamines, which cause an allergic reaction. 

Food Intolerance — Digestive System

Food intolerances do not trigger an immune reaction. When food intolerance occurs, an individual is unable to properly digest a particular food due to one of the following reasons:

  1. Enzyme deficiency: Some people are born with, or develop, an inability to produce enough enzymes to aid the digestion and absorption of certain foods. For example, people with lactose intolerance have a deficiency in the enzyme, lactase, which is responsible for breaking down milk sugars (lactose) to be absorbed through the intestine. If lactose remains undigested within the digestive tract, it can lead to stomach aches, spasms, bloating, diarrhea, and gas
  2. Chemicals in food: Occasionally, certain naturally occurring chemicals in food and drink trigger food intolerances. Caffeine in tea, coffee, and chocolate is a common culprit. So are amines, small proteins such as tyramine, histamine, and phenylethylamine present in a variety of cheese, beer, and wine.[1] Food additives, such as preservatives, artificial colors and flavors enhancers, like MSG can also trigger intolerances. 
  3. Toxins in food: Toxins, also naturally present in certain foods, can have a toxic effect on the human body causing diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting. For example, aflatoxins present in under-cooked beans can be blamed for some extremely unpleasant digestive problems. Surprisingly, fully cooked beans don’t have the same toxin and are thus well tolerated.

This explain the difference between a food intolerance and a food allergy.  If you're looking for some food allergy stomach pain relief then learning about the difference between a food allergy and stomach pain can really help!

How do I Know When Stomach Pain is Related to Food Allergy or Food Intolerance?

Food allergies affect around 4% of the population; while up to 20% of people have a food intolerance [2]. If you’re unsure what’s causing your stomach pain, ask yourself the following questions:

Symptoms: Is your stomach ache accompanied by other symptoms?

Food allergies and intolerances manifest in a similar way, making it tricky to distinguish between the two. However, as a general rule:

True food allergies are more commonly associated with skin reactions, such as swelling, tingling, itching or hives. In fact, cutaneous reactions are seen in 80% of cases. [3] Respiratory symptoms may involve nasal congestion and sinusitis. Gastrointestinal symptoms may include vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal pain. However, these don’t usually occur alone.

If you tend to experience digestive symptoms that are often accompanied by lethargy, headaches, migraines, and mouth ulcers, it’s more likely you’re suffering from food intolerance.[4] 

Onset: How long does it take for your symptoms to emerge?

Food allergies are characterized by rapid onset, usually emerging in less than 30 minutes after consuming the food in children and within 2 hours in adults. [5] Symptoms of a food allergy tend to resolve within 48 hours.

While the symptoms of food intolerance are also typically immediate after ingestion, they are not as severe and sometimes can take a few hours to develop. In some cases, once symptoms are present, it may take hours and sometimes even days to disappear.

Severity: How much of the offending food can you tolerate? 

With a food allergy, eating, touching, or even inhaling a microscopic amount of the offending food has the potential to cause a severe or even life-threatening reaction called anaphylaxis. An anaphylactic reaction occurs within minutes and is defined by difficulty breathing, swelling of the tongue, tightness in the throat, wheezing or coughing, persistent dizziness, or loss of consciousness. 

With food intolerance, people can tolerate different amounts of the offending food. For example, you may be able to eat small amounts of the offending food without experiencing any symptoms, while a large amount will result in more severe symptoms. It’s even possible to prevent the reaction with medication. For example, people with lactose intolerance may be able to safely drink milk by taking lactase enzyme pills to aid digestion.

Type of Foods: What foods trigger your food allergy or intolerance symptoms?

The foods most commonly associated with allergies include:

  • Cow’s milk
  • Peanuts and tree nuts (walnuts, almonds, cashews, pistachios)
  • Wheat
  • Eggs
  • Fish and shellfish
  • Soy [6]

In fact, these foods cause 90% of all allergic reactions. [5] Nonetheless, any food can trigger a reaction. 

The most common food intolerances include:

  • Lactose in dairy foods
  • Gluten in wheat, barley, and rye
  • Caffeine
  • Fructose in a variety of fresh foods, sweets, and high-energy drinks
  • Amines in cheese, beer, and wine

Where can I go to Confirm a Food Allergy? 

If you think a food allergy is at the route of your abdominal pain, I recommend receiving a medical diagnosis from a professional allergist who can assess your risk of anaphylaxis. An allergist will discuss your medical history to determine the likely cause of your abdominal pain and identify any cross-reactive foods. To confirm the diagnosis, the allergist may conduct laboratory tests; such as a skin prick test or allergen-specific IgE test. 

Skin Prick Tests 

Skin prick tests are fast and effective, therefore, are the primary method for diagnosing IgE-mediated food allergies. A small amount of allergen from different types of foods is introduced to the superficial layers of the skin. 

If an allergen reacts with IgE antibodies in the skin, histamines will be released leading to visible signs of inflammation after 15 minutes. This visible presence of swelling and redness indicates a food allergy. 

Allergen-Specific IgE Tests

Also known as Radioallergosorbent testing (RAST), allergen-specific IgE testing measures the levels of certain IgE antibodies in the blood. Small quantities of IgE antibodies are normally found in blood, but high levels of a specific IgE indicate the body is allergic to a certain food.



A small sample of blood is taken, usually from the inside of your elbow, and sent to a laboratory for analysis. The lab tests for the presence of allergen-specific IgE antibodies for a range of different foods. If you have high levels of an allergen-specific IgE antibody, it’s highly likely you have an allergy to the proteins in that food. 

What can I do for Food Allergy Stomach Pain Relief

Food allergies can be deadly, although not all reactions require a visit to the emergency room. If you’re experiencing any signs of anaphylaxis, get help immediately, as anaphylaxis can escalate in a matter of minutes or even seconds. If you’re having a mild allergic reaction, there are some things you can do to treat your abdominal symptoms. 

Avoid the food

The first step for food allergy stomach pain relief is to simply avoid the food. There’s no need to test for a reaction yourself. If you suspect it’s causing your stomach pain, simply stop eating it.

Antihistamines

Antihistamines are often used to treat itching, sneezing, hives or rashes, but are not as effective for stomach pain relief.

Natural remedies

Over the years, studies have confirmed the effectiveness of a variety of natural remedies for stomach pain relief. 

Chamomile tea is particularly beneficial if you experience cramping or spasms. It acts as an anti-inflammatory agent to help your stomach muscles to relax.[7] I recommend adding a few pieces of fresh ginger too, which also helps to reduce inflammation naturally.  

Oregano is another strong natural anti-inflammatory and antioxidant, which helps to neutralize free radicals. In fact, oregano and thyme oil has been shown to reduce inflammation and swelling in the gut of mice [8]

Peppermint in the form of tea, mints, and fresh leaves may also help to alleviate an upset stomach and nausea by acting as a natural analgesic. [9]  

Hot water bottles or beanbags can provide a soothing effect when you’re suffering from abdominal pain. Cuddle up on the bed and allow the heat to relax your stomach muscles.

Prevention is the Key

Whether you have a food allergy, food intolerance or sensitivity, the key to long-term relief is avoidance. Once you have identified the culprit of your pain or undesirable symptoms, take measures to avoid the trigger.

Always read labels and ask what’s in your food before indulging. In the case of a food allergy, make sure everyone around you is made aware , just in case an emergency happens. Lastly, always have an anaphylaxis plan in place. Though the severity of some food allergies can lessen over time, it’s best to avoid testing the waters with even the slightest amount of potentially dangerous food.

References

[1]https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/6d71/24cb49368220ad799f8e5dc5c32ed377901f.pdf

[2] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18729729/

[3] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6016602/

[4] https://www.allergy.org.au/patients/food-other-adverse-reactions/food-intolerance

[5] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4777468/

[6] https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/apt.12984

[7]https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/02df/54a634240e726ff38095c768d21701232b9a.pdf

[8] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2233768/

[9] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26319955

About The Author

Kylene Bogden

Kylene Bogden is one of the most well respected Functional Sports Dietitians in the United States. As a high school and collegiate sprinter, she experienced recurrent injury and fatigue. After years of constant struggle, she eventually learned that an abundance of processed foods and poor fueling strategies were the root of her performance issues. Kylene's personal journey as an athlete fueled her passion for finding a more progressive approach to sports nutrition. Since then, she has helped thousands of individuals dramatically improve overall health and athletic performance by taking a whole food approach. To learn more about Kylene's story and how a functional nutrition approach can help you to achieve your goals, simply click on the contact us link in the upper right-hand corner today!

2 Comments

  1. Penelope Smith

    I liked that you pointed out that you could be allergic to some chemicals that are in good. I wouldn’t have thought about how you can be allergic to food dyes. It might be smart to get tested by an allergist to see if you have any of those types of allergies.

    Reply
    • Kylene Bogden

      Yes! Exactly! Thank you so much for taking the time to read and respond to our article, Penelope!

      Reply

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