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Some symptoms of food intolerance (such as stomach pain and nausea) can overlap with those of allergy, but an intolerance does not involve the immune system. It usually occurs when a person’s body doesn’t produce an enzyme needed to digest a certain food. For instance, lactose intolerance is the result of the body not making enough lactase, the enzyme that digests milk sugars.

Symptoms of an intolerance — bloating, cramps, diarrhea — generally involve the GI tract, but they can also extend to headaches and mental fogginess, says Northwestern University pediatrics and medicine professor Ruchi Gupta, MD, MPH, author of Food Without Fear: Identify, Prevent, and Treat Food Allergies, Intolerances, and Sensitivities. “These symptoms are uncomfortable but not life threatening.”

Symptoms of a food intolerance are uncomfortable but not life threatening.

Common food intolerances include lactose, gluten, caffeine, and eggs. (Think you may be gluten-intolerant? Here’s how to find out.)

Some of these can be acquired with age, says naturopathic doctor Sara Jean Barrett, ND, a holistic and functional-medicine practitioner in Minneapolis. Nutrient deficiencies can reduce our ability to make digestive enzymes, as can illness, infection, and medications that affect the gut.

Intolerances can also be tricky to pin down, Barrett notes, because you can’t test for them in the blood. They can only be identified by eliminating the suspected food and seeing if symptoms improve.

This was excerpted from “Making Sense of Food Allergies” which was published in the May 2022 issue of Experience Life magazine.

Mo Perry

Mo Perry is an Experience Life contributing editor.

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