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What Causes Food Intolerances? Can They Develop Over Time?

6 Mins read

Food intolerances are a common issue for many people, and the associated health problems can be quite severe. Some people with lactose intolerance, for example, are intolerant to dairy and can’t eat it without feeling sick. Others can’t digest gluten and have to follow a special diet due to their gluten intolerance.

The question is, where do these food intolerances come from?

Food intolerances aren’t the same as a food allergy, where consuming a problem food can be potentially life-threatening. With food intolerance or food sensitivity, you’re more likely to have negative side effects when you eat a certain kind of food. Around 20% of the world’s population has at least one food intolerance.

Today, we’re going to look at the causes of food intolerances, the most common types, and whether they can develop over time.

What is a Food Intolerance?

Intolerance to food, or “hypersensitivity”, refers to a condition wherein your body responds to certain foods in a negative way. With food intolerance, the problem typically stems from being unable to process a certain ingredient in the food you eat.

For instance, someone with lactose intolerance would have trouble digesting lactose. Because the sugar in the dairy (lactose) wouldn’t digest properly in your stomach, you’d be more likely to have side effects such as vomiting, diarrhoea, and general discomfort.

The symptoms of food intolerances can vary, with some being so subtle that you may not notice you have an intolerance until you eat a large amount of that food. However, simply ignoring food intolerances isn’t an option for most people.

The more you ignore your food intolerances, the more likely you are to suffer from long-term conditions such as chronic inflammation, gastrointestinal distress, and even malnutrition. That’s why it’s so important to have a solid and comprehensive understanding of your body. Find out what foods it can or can’t tolerate before you start working on a new diet.

What are the Causes of Food Intolerances?

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A food intolerance might be something you’re born with.

Genes can sometimes lead to someone having a higher chance of intolerance. For instance, people of East Asian descent are more likely to have an inherited genetic mutation that causes alcohol intolerance. However, anyone can have the enzyme problem that causes this condition.

Other kinds of food intolerance naturally progress over time.

Look at lactose intolerance, for example. Except for in very rare circumstances, most babies have the ability to make the lactase enzyme responsible for digesting lactose. However, as we get older, our lactase levels often begin to decrease naturally. This means there’s not as much enzyme left to properly digest the lactose you consume.

According to the National Institutes of Health, about 65% of people develop lactose intolerance over time. However, there are other factors that might affect how likely you are to get this intolerance too. For instance, some ethnic groups are more likely to get this intolerance than others, and injuries to your small intestine can also influence the production of lactase long-term.

For most food intolerances, the causes seem to be a combination of genetic influence, natural exposure to certain substances over time, and countless other factors. Today, researchers still aren’t sure where some intolerances come from.

What are the Most Common Food Intolerances?

A major factor influencing whether a food intolerance can develop over time or not, is what kind of intolerance you’re talking about. As mentioned above, alcohol intolerance is usually caused by a genetic mutation to a specific enzyme in the body. This makes it more common among specific people, and more likely appear at all ages (though you wouldn’t notice an intolerance to alcohol until adulthood.

Let’s take a closer look at some common food intolerances, and where they come from.

1.    Gluten Intolerance

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Gluten is the protein from barley, triticale, and rye.

There are several conditions related to gluten, including non-celiac gluten sensitivity, celiac disease, and wheat allergies. Crucially, a gluten intolerance won’t necessarily be the same as celiac disease – a condition prompted by an immune system response.

If you have gluten intolerance, you may experience many of the same symptoms of celiac disease. Non-celiac sensitivities often lead to abdominal pain, bloating, headaches, joint pain and fatigue. In general, your doctor will recommend avoiding any foods and products containing gluten, such as bread, pasta, and cereals.

While celiac disease strikes at any age, it’s most common to develop gluten intolerance as you get older. The condition will often begin in your twenties, though it can also appear later.

2.    Caffeine Intolerance

Caffeine is a very popular substance in the modern world – but it can also be a source of significant issues. The bitter chemical found in coffee and other beverages is a stimulant, responsible for reducing fatigue and improving alertness when consumed.

Most adults can safely manage around 400mg of caffeine a day without issues, but some people are more sensitive than others. Hypersensitivity to caffeine is linked to genetics, as well as issues with metabolizing caffeine.

People with caffeine sensitivity can often experience symptoms like anxiety, heart palpitations, nervousness, insomnia, restlessness, and more. Similar to many intolerances, sensitivity can increase as you get older. The younger you are, the easier your body can metabolize caffeine. As you age, you may find you’re more likely to experience the side effects of caffeine intolerance.

3.    Salicylate Intolerance

Salicylates are chemicals naturally produced by plants. These substances actually have some excellent properties, including the ability to reduce inflammation. Usually, salicylates appear in teas, vegetables, fruits, coffees, nuts, spices, and more.

Unfortunately, not everyone responds well to salicylates. If you have an intolerance to these chemicals, you may experience issues like sinus infections, a stuffy nose, asthma, gut inflammation, diarrhoea, asthma and more.

Salicylate intolerance is less likely to occur with time, as your intolerance tends to come from genetics. However, you may be more likely to experience the issue if you have asthma or inflammatory bowel disease.

4.    Amine Intolerance

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Amines are a unique substance created by bacteria during the food storage and fermentation stage. There are amines in a wide range of foods, including the classic allergen substance, histamine. Usually, histamine plays an important role in the immune, nervous, and digestive systems, helping to protect the body from infection.

If you have an intolerance to histamine, this means you’ll struggle to break the product down correctly, causing it to build up more aggressively in the body. The most common reason for histamine intolerance is the impaired function of diamine oxidase and N-methyltransferase.

Symptoms of amine intolerance include digestive issues, fatigue, vomiting, and nausea. You may find you become more intolerant to Amines over time if you’re taking medications that block the enzyme diamine oxidase. Inflammatory gastrointestinal disorders also prompt a higher risk of this intolerance.

5.    FODMAP intolerance

FODMAPS are the short-chain carbohydrates present in a huge range of foods, like honey, vegetables and fruits, beans, and even various starches. If your body reacts poorly to foods containing FODMAPs, it’s often due to the inability to produce the enzymes required for metabolic function.

When your body can’t metabolize FODMAPs properly, the food travels to your large intestine in its full form, gut bacteria then ferment the substance, producing gas leading to bloating and other uncomfortable side effects.

FODMAP intolerances can link to a wide range of food additives, including nitrates (preservatives in processed meats), MSG (a flavour enhancer), Sulphites (shelf-life increaser), and various food colourings. Interestingly, a lot of experts believe that FODMAP intolerance does change naturally over time.

Often, this condition worsens depending on the type and diversity of your gut bacteria, your anxiety and stress levels, potential damage to the small intestine, and the sensitivity of your gut nerve endings. You may even develop FODMAP intolerance based on your overall wellbeing and health.

How to Manage a Food Intolerance

As you can see above, the causes of food intolerances vary.

In some circumstances, you’re born with a condition that affects the way you process certain foods. In other situations, you may develop a food intolerance over time, particularly if your body is exposed to other conditions like IBS, gut problems, and immune system issues.

Though you may not be able to predict an impending food intolerance with absolute certainty – you can get an insight into the kind of intolerance issues you may be predisposed to. The easiest way to do this is with genetic testing.

DNA testing allows for an inside look at the kind of enzymes, mutations, and genetic issues which might indicate the possibility of food intolerance. For instance, you can use DNA testing to see if you’re likely to respond poorly to caffeine, or whether you’re more predisposed to issues with lactase.

Indeed, DNA testing may be the most effective way to get an insight into your intolerance risk. There currently aren’t a lot of great alternative tests for diagnosing food problems.

If you discover you do have a food intolerance, the key to success is often learning how to manage your diet and track your eating habits carefully. Paying more attention to what you eat should minimize side effects. Plus, you get the added benefit of better control over your diet for weight loss purposes. 

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The editorial team behind CircleMagazine, dedicated to bringing you bite-size health tips, real-life health stories and the latest genetic-related findings at this digital health hub.
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