sugar cubes in a bowl

The Sour Truth About Sugar Intolerance and Sugar Allergy

Have you ever had a “sugar hangover”? These hangovers refer to that crappy feeling you get after indulging in sweet foods or beverages. Sugar hangovers happen when you eat plenty of sugar, which makes the blood spike and follows a sugar crash and burn. This results in a lethargic or painful feeling that happens when you consume too much sugar.

But there are some people who consume a smaller amount of the sweet stuff and STILL feel the same level of pain and discomfort. Why is that?

This is where sugar intolerance becomes a possibility.

Yes, you can be sugar intolerant or even have an actual sugar allergy, which is a rare occurrence. It may sound like an extreme health event, but sugar impacts you physically and psychologically. But if you continuously feel pain or discomfort after eating sugar, does this mean you have a sugar allergy? Is a sugar allergy the same as sugar intolerance?

Why Does Sugar Upset My Stomach? Am I Allergic Or Intolerant?

Can you be allergic to sugar? Yes.

Generally, when you consume food that you’re allergic to (in this case, sugar), your body creates immunoglobin E (IgE), an antibody. When you are exposed again to the same allergen (even if it has been weeks or years later), your immune system’s alarm bells will go off. At the same time, it will bind the pre-formed IgE on mast cells, which triggers an allergic reaction.

But there are times when a sugar allergy isn’t the case. This is when people ask, “Can you be sensitive to sugar, then?”

Yes. Sugar intolerance happens when your body is unable to break down sugars in your digestive system. This could be due to different factors, which includes enzyme sensitivities or deficiencies to specific additives or chemicals in your food. Sugar intolerance (and other types of food intolerance) can also be triggered by an underlying health condition like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Stress and anxiety can also trigger food intolerance.

In terms of symptoms, sugar intolerance and sugar allergies are drastically different, too.

Symptoms of a food allergy can include:

  1. Anaphylaxis
  2. Trouble breathing
  3. Sneezing
  4. Diarrhea
  5. Abdominal cramping or pain
  6. Hives

On the other hand, the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (AAAAI), the symptoms of food intolerance include:

  1. Diarrhea
  2. Abdominal pain
  3. Bloating
  4. Intestinal gas

It’s easy to confuse sugar intolerance and sugar allergy since their symptoms can overlap (e.g. abdominal pain and diarrhea). But the major difference is that intolerance is not the result of a dysfunctional immune system. Also, people with sugar intolerance can still have a small amount of sugar without issues. On the other hand, people with a sugar allergy can’t have any sugar.

Sugar Intolerance is More Common Than Sugar Allergies

sugar jelly candies

Sugar allergies are rare while sugar intolerance is more common, especially lactose intolerance. According to a study from the U.S. National Library of Medicine, about 65 percent of people experience trouble digesting lactose. Sugar also becomes more difficult to digest as you grow older.

If you’re intolerant to sugar, you won’t automatically be allergic to it. Remember: allergies happen if you eat raw sugar (or any food with sugar) and your immune system has an adverse reaction to it. On the other hand, sugar intolerance happens because your body can’t digest sugar.

If you are allergic to sugar, you can experience a harmful allergic reaction called anaphylaxis, which causes wheezing, shortness of breath and swelling of the mouth. If not treated immediately, it can be life-threatening.

But if you have sugar intolerance only, you may just experience the gastrointestinal issues mentioned above, as well as some fatigue.

Different Sugars That Trigger Sensitivity

Unfortunately, escaping sugar is not an option for everyone since it is everywhere. Raw table sugar isn’t the only culprit behind sugar intolerance or allergy.

Consider the different types of sugar:

  • This sugar type is often found in milk and other dairy products. If you are lactose intolerant, you can’t digest lactose, which results in GI issues. Lactose intolerance is not the same as milk allergy, where your immune system has an adverse reaction to the milk proteins.
  • Fructose is found in foods like fruits, honey, some fruit juices and some vegetables. You avoid these foods if you have fructose intolerance. Fructose is also in table sugar and high-fructose corn syrup.
  • Derived from sugarcane, this sugar type makes up table sugar. If you have sucrose intolerance, table sugar is off your menu.
  • Sugar alcohols. Xylitol and erythritol are sugar substitutes often used in sugar-free or low-calorie food items. Despite not being “100 percent sugar,” these sugar alcohols can cause GI issues for many people. In rare cases, people can experience sugar allergy upon consumption of these sugar substitutes.

How Do You Test for Sugar Intolerance or Allergy?

If you think that you may have an allergy to sugar, see an allergist immediately. Your doctor will test for allergies by ordering a blood test or through a skin prick. A breath test can determine if you are intolerant to lactose.

Depending on the severity of your response to sugar, your doctor may recommend limiting or avoiding certain foods that contain sugar. If you are lactose intolerant, you’ll have to cut back on dairy or avoid it totally.

But if you have a sugar allergy, your doctor may recommend carrying an auto-injector wherever you are. This delivers a dose of epinephrine, a hormone that stops an allergic reaction. A shot of epinephrine relieves symptoms like swelling of the face and shortness of breath.

How Do I Get Rid of Sugar Intolerance or Sugar Allergies?

woman with sugar on her lips

With sugar allergies, you can’t get rid of an allergy, but you can manage it. As for sugar intolerance, it can be treatable. But for both cases, reducing sugar is the first step in addressing the symptoms.

Fortunately, you don’t have to go extreme with your diet. Start by narrowing down the type of sugar you think you’re intolerant or allergic to. Keep a good diary and record the potential culprits behind the flare-ups. It’s possible that the lactose bothers you, but the other sugar types do not cause problems. Potentially, too many sweets may also cause your body to break out.

People may have intolerances to both processed and natural forms of sugar, which can be found in the following:

  • Soft drinks
  • Sweetened tea or coffee
  • Milk
  • Fruits and fruit juices
  • Baked goods and desserts like cookies, cakes, ice cream, candy and muffins
  • Nut milk and nut butter
  • Protein bars, granola bars and breakfast cereals

Hidden sugars also cause for concern. Certain unexpected food items and snacks also contain sugars, which include salad dressings, chips and pasta sauces. It’s important that people with sugar problems should read the label of everything to avoid symptoms of intolerance or allergies. Read the label carefully because sugar and other sweeteners have different names.

Sweeteners hide under the following names:

  • Molasses
  • Agave
  • Sugar (white sugar, brown sugar, cane juice, beet sugar or glucose cane syrup)
  • Ice syrup
  • Honey

You’ll have to find alternatives to satisfy your sweet tooth. If your favorite yogurt is rich in sugar, look for a low-sugar alternative. You can also make the switch to sugar substitutes.

Potential substitutes include:

  • Stevia
  • Xylitol
  • Aspartame
  • Saccharin

Sugar substitutes, however, can also have some implications. So, it’s best to talk with your doctor first before you use these substitutes.

Apart from avoiding sugar, eat a balanced diet based on foods rich in fiber, vitamins and minerals. Indulge in whole grain foods, fruits and vegetables. Your diet should also be low in sugar, salt and saturated fat.

Sugar allergies are rare, but if you have an adverse reaction to sugar (that isn’t as severe as a sugar allergy), you may be sugar intolerant. Reducing sugar is the key to managing sugar intolerance and sugar allergies. Also, monitor your diet and let others know about your sugar limitations.

Always consult with your doctor first to learn more about how you can manage your sugar intolerance. Ask them about the food you can eat too so you can be still happy with your meals.

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Maggie Wheeler
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