Is it possible to have a sugar allergy? While it is extremely rare to have a true allergy to sugar, some people can be very sensitive to even a small amount of sweet foods
In many cases, feeling bad after eating sweets is actually just a “sugar hangover” that occurs if you eat a ton of sugar. That sugar overload can cause your blood sugar to spike, then crash and burn.
“There are people who can’t tolerate high sugar intake,” Tanya Freirich, MS, RDN, tells SELF. “Often people will have headaches and other symptoms from ‘high’ and ‘low’ reactive sugar.” But that’s still not necessarily an allergy, which we’ll get to in a bit.
An important thing to remember when talking about sugar intake is the difference between natural sugars and added sugars. Natural sugars would include those that are inherently a part of food and are not added during processing, such as sugar found naturally in fruits, vegetables, and many dairy products. Added sugars, on the other hand, are any sugar that was added during the manufacturing process, whether it be honey, high fructose corn syrup, or something else.
But if you’re wondering about a pattern you’ve noticed in how your body feels after consuming sugar, it may help to know that while our bodies can’t really tell the difference between the sugar in a piece of fruit and the sugar in a chocolate bar, it’s true that many foods with a lot of added sugar also don’t have many other nutrients, like fiber, which can help your body slow the breakdown and absorption of sugar into the bloodstream, leading to a less drastic increase of blood sugar.
That could be why you feel more sugar after eating a lot of sweets than after eating a lot of fruit.
Why do some people feel sick after eating sugar?
When sugar enters the body, it causes the blood glucose level to rise, which then causes the pancreas to release insulin to help move that glucose from the bloodstream into the cells, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidneys. A large insulin release can also cause a blood sugar crash later on, which can be experienced as a headache, nausea, or gastrointestinal upset, says Lauren Harris-Pincus, MS, RDN, author of The Everything Easy Pre-Diabetes Cookbook.
Some people may experience this more drastically than others, especially if they are prone to high blood sugar or hyperglycemia, which happens when there is a buildup of excess glucose in the bloodstream. This is often a problem for people with diabetes or prediabetes, but it’s possible to have these conditions and not even know it, so it’s worth knowing the symptoms to watch out for. Signs of high blood sugar include fatigue, increased thirst, frequent urination, headaches, and blurred vision, among others.
But it is also possible that you have a reaction to the sugar itself, which can happen if you have an allergy or intolerance to certain ingredients.
The difference between sugar allergy and sugar intolerance
We all have certain foods that just don’t sit well with us or cause not-so-desirable symptoms like indigestion, bloating, or cramps. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you have a true allergy to that food or ingredient. And while some people use the terms interchangeably, a food allergy and a food intolerance are two different things.
A food allergy is a reaction that occurs when your immune system overreacts to a food protein, thinking it to be a harmful substance. According to Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE), symptoms of a food allergy can range from mild to life-threatening and include:
- Abdominal pain or cramps
- Difficulty breathing
- Anaphylaxis (a severe and life-threatening allergic reaction)
A food intolerance means that you have trouble digesting any food. In general, this causes digestive problems and the symptoms are not as severe as those of a food allergy, according to the Mayo Clinic.
There are a variety of reasons why you might be intolerant to a particular food. Sometimes it’s the result of your body not producing an enzyme needed to break down that food (for example, if you’re lactose intolerant, you lack the enzyme lactase, which is needed to break down lactose, the sugar in milk). Other times it has to do with an underlying health condition, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), or even stress or anxiety, says the Mayo Clinic.
According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology, symptoms of a food intolerance include:
- intestinal gas
- Abdominal pain
It’s easy to confuse an intolerance and an allergy because the symptoms can overlap. But one big difference is that food intolerances are not the result of immune system dysfunction. In addition, people with food intolerances can eat a small amount of food without any problem (or they can take something to help digestion), while with an allergy, they usually cannot resort to any food allergens.
How to know if you are allergic to sugar
While intolerance to a certain type of sugar is quite common, it is extremely rare to have a true allergy to sugar. In fact, there appears to be only one documented case of fructose-induced anaphylaxis, which was published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology: In Practice1.
That said, there have been some limited reports of people having allergic responses to sugar substitutes. Stevia and the sugar alcohol erythritol can cause sensitivity reactions, such as sore throat and cough, in some people. Research on this is sparse, but one allergy study describes two cases of anaphylaxis in infants after they came in contact with stevioside, an extract from the stevia plant.
“A sugar allergy is so rare that it almost doesn’t exist, but antibodies would check it out,” says Freirich. So if you think you’re having an allergic reaction to sugar or any other food, you should seek immediate treatment.
The main types of sugar implicated in sugar intolerance
People are often intolerant to certain types of sugar rather than all types. The most common is lactose intolerance, a sugar found in milk and other dairy products. “This is due to insufficient amounts of the enzyme lactase, which we need to break down the disaccharide lactose into glucose and galactose for digestion,” says Harris-Pincus. (But remember, this is not the same as a milk allergy, which means your immune system has a response to milk proteins.)
When we don’t have enough lactase, the intact lactose can cause gas, bloating, pain, or diarrhea. These sugar intolerance symptoms can also occur with maltose (mainly found in malt and other grains) or sucrose (commonly known as table sugar), all of which have corresponding enzymes needed to break them down, Harris-Pincus explains. .
READ ALSO | 11 Ways to Get the Most Out of an Anti-Inflammatory Diet
So what about glucose intolerance? Glucose is a simple sugar and an important carbohydrate-based energy source for the body. In processed foods, it is usually joined with another simple sugar to form sucrose or lactose. When people refer to glucose intolerance, they usually mean having a metabolic condition that leads to high blood glucose levels, such as prediabetes or type 2 diabetes.
What to do if you think you have symptoms related to sugar
If you experience uncomfortable symptoms after eating sugar that don’t necessarily align with an allergic reaction, it’s worth checking with a health care provider to see what’s up. You may be experiencing symptoms of high blood sugar or have a food intolerance that needs to be checked.
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