Food Intolerances Are Real: Here’s How I Manage Mine

Jenna Birch
by Jenna Birch
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Food Intolerances Are Real: Here’s How I Manage Mine

After years of stomachaches that sent me into a tizzy of pain more days than not, I endured months of testing and an hour of waiting in the doctor’s office to finally receive a verdict on my condition: a severe case of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) with fructose malabsorption.

You might know about IBS, which involves non-damaging symptoms in the large intestine, like cramping, abdominal pain, bloating, gas, diarrhea and constipation. After ruling out other issues like Irritable Bowel Disease, ulcers or Crohn’s, my doctors had determined this was the reason for the lifelong stomachaches I suffered.

IBS affects roughly 25 to 40 million people in the U.S., and food intolerances are a common subset of stomach issues. Some estimates suggest one in three people may have some sensitivity to fructose, for instance. And if you experience symptoms like bloating, gas and upset stomach every time you eat, you may want to talk to your doctor about testing.

To break fructose malabsorption down into simple terms, it’s my body that does not appropriately break down this simple sugar. For most people, fructose is absorbed completely in the small intestine before food moves through the digestive tract. In people with fructose malabsorption, however, the body cannot entirely handle the fructose, carrying some of it into the colon, where bacteria attack it, causing the intestine to swell. This can be painful, annoying and frustrating, because if you’re not careful, you can end up feeling terrible almost every day. Fructose is in everything.

How do you deal? By having patience with your body, and coming up with a plan.

How I Cope with My Fructose Malabsorption

A dietician helped me with the FODMAPs diet, which is an elimination diet aimed at figuring out which foods are your “triggers” for symptoms. For me, after taking my diet down to the bare bones and easing foods back in, I found out that my stomach did not tolerate items like garlic, onions, green peppers, raisins and pretty much all dairy. Now, I avoid these foods whenever I can. If I can’t sidestep them—like if garlic and onion powder is baked into the main dish at a friend’s party—I try to be proactive about having symptoms. It sounds simple, but peppermints are often my best stomach-soother after an encounter with a trigger food.

In addition to figuring out which foods to avoid, I also needed medication to manage the day-to-day symptoms of IBS and fructose mal because it’s incredibly difficult to avoid all triggers and fructose. Nortriptyline was my godsend. After nine straight months of next-level-terrible stomach pain and bloating, taking just 20 milligrams (as my doc prescribed) before bed completely changed my life overnight. After my first dose, the next morning, I felt tenfold better, and I just continued to improve from there.

Nortriptyline helped me incorporate most foods back into my diet with minimal symptoms. I always have some symptoms like bloating and cramping with eating—that’s just common fare—but it’s barely noticeable to me anymore. That said, avoiding trigger foods is not a perfect science. Some low-FODMAPs foods spark symptoms, and other high-FODMAPs foods do not. I have also learned which foods make me feel worse than others, and it’s a give and take. Sometimes if I’m craving frozen yogurt, I eat it, knowing it might make me feel bloated and uncomfortable later on.

Here’s a list of the foods I generally avoid because they trigger symptoms:

  • garlic
  • onion
  • broccoli
  • cauliflower
  • ketchup
  • noodles
  • wheat products
  • dairy products (although I sometimes make exceptions for ice cream; I also opt for soy instead of regular milk)
  • Brussels sprouts (although I love them and at times make exceptions)

Suffering Doesn’t Have to Be a Way of Life

It’s strange how easy it was to ignore the symptoms of my intolerance. Honestly, eating and getting sick had become such standard procedure in my life over the years that I almost didn’t realize it wasn’t normal to feel that way. Let me tell you: it’s not. And let me urge you: If eating makes you uncomfortable with similar symptoms, see your doctor.

There’s a better life after treatment for a food intolerance. One where you don’t have to worry about getting sick all the time, or suffer with stomach pain after every meal, and relief might be just one test away. I can’t believe I waited as long as I did to seek treatment.

About the Author

Jenna Birch
Jenna Birch

Jenna Birch is a health and lifestyle writer. She has written for many web and print publications, including Marie Claire, Runner’s World, and As a nutrition and fitness junkie, she’s a lifelong athlete, major college sports fan and developing yogi—but still can’t resist the allure of an occasional chocolate lava cake. (Everything in moderation, right?) For more, visit her at or follow her on Twitter.  


44 responses to “Food Intolerances Are Real: Here’s How I Manage Mine”

  1. Avatar Rich Nesbitt says:

    I’ve suffered from the age of 16 with IBS after a bout of campylobacter, for years i would be bad through the night with terrible stomach pains, kept going to docs after being extremely closed to getting sacked from work and asked to be tested, refused as they said it would rule out of everything

    Eventually found out it its Tomato Puree, nothing similar on the internet about it but if i was to eat Tinned Tomatoes, Tomato Sauce, Pasta sauce apart from Lloyd Grossman’s and Pizza sauce, i’m in for an all nighter. Even stranger owning a greenhouse, i love tomatoes and can go through tons of fresh ones without any issue.

    I do still suffer, but not in the extreme as i once did, and i do think there is more foods which possibly contain a chemical. Problem i feel we have is there so much added to our foods, which often changes per region and over time we literally could allergic and intolerant to so many different things

  2. Avatar Nixnaxs says:

    I follow a FODMAP food regime because of my ibs – coiled with non- alcoholic fatty liver disease , not a lot to enjoy

  3. Avatar paddy says:

    I’m a coeliac and for 3 years I suffered before they figured out what was wrong with me

  4. Avatar M says:

    Glad your symptoms have decreased. But I think you need to provide more information to the lay person about how nortriptyline actually helped you. It’s miss leading as it currently stands.

  5. Avatar Michelle L. says:

    I’ve recently started having horrible stomach pains and have decided to go see a doctor. Have any of you felt these horrible stomach pains followed by migraines? I’ve been getting those which I feel the sudden change in my diet might have triggered them. I stopped eating fatty foods, fried foods, white rice and flour and turned to fresh vegetables and whole grains. Hopefully I get diagnosed soon! Thanks for the article!

    • Avatar j says:

      I suffered increasingly for years with similar symptoms of migraine with stomach upset, pain, bloating, cramping & diarrhea. Turned out it was from gluten! I’d have never guessed, but I had a food intolerance blood test (ALCAT) done & it popped up, among many other thighs I did suspect. No gluten = nearly zero migraines!! All the best figuring it out. I find using Myfitnesspal as a food diary has been immensely helpful.

    • Avatar clk says:

      I had the same symptoms and after process of elimination, found out the problem was caused by quinoa.

    • Avatar Raven True says:

      Migraines for me are chocolate and caffeine.

  6. Avatar Kitty says:

    How do you find out if you have IBS?

    • If you have gas/bloating, diarrhea, constipation, stomach upset or all of the above for more than 2-3 months, you should probably go to a gastroenterologist and have a colonoscopy done to medically diagnose your symptoms and get physical proof of its existence. It’s relatively painless, and if you catch it early enough you can stop & sometimes reverse the damage being done to your intestinal track before it goes beyond minor inflammation.

    • Avatar Wendy, MA, OTR/L says:

      IBS is the diagnosis that you will get once your medical practitioner has ruled out everything else like colon cancer for example. It is a diagnosis of elimination. I jokingly call it the diagnosis of, “um, your guess is as good as mine.” That is not to say that you don’t have symptoms or problems. It is simply to say that exactly what is wrong doesn’t exactly fit into one of the other – usually crappier and nastier – categories. Sometimes Chrone’s disease is often misdiagnosed as just IBS and people find that they are sensitive to specific foods rather than just categories. If you have not actually seen an MD for your symptoms and are assuming that you have IBS it would behoove you to actually seek medical attention of a REAL doctor.

  7. Avatar Fiona Penman says:

    I have IBS and sorbitol malabsorption. I can’t have garlic or onions either (as well as other things like wheat) which is devastating. I have found, however, that I can tolerate a garlic or onion infused olive oil. This discovery has been a godsend! I can have the flavour without the side-effect. My naturopath has given me a tablet (usually for period pain) called Cramplex. If I feel my bowel starting to spasm, I can take Cramplex and it stops the cramping and any after effects.

    • Avatar Mikey says:

      You can also sauté garlic or onion in oil as long as you take out the pieces before continuing with a recipe if you don’t have infused on-hand. The chemicals that give garlic/onion its flavor come out in oil separate from the sugars that cause the FODMAPs issues.

      Food science is awesome 😀

  8. Avatar Cindy says:

    So, I would like to ask why it is better to you to go on a pill than to manage your symptoms by following a low FODMAP diet properly? Since you still always have symptoms, I would not find that acceptable. I would not want to be bloated and cramping on ANY level! I do have GI issues myself so I know what that feels like.

    • Avatar Mikey says:

      Unfortunately, sometimes without eating any of my trigger foods (as I have similar issues to the post author) I can get bloated or cramped due to stress, anxiety, etc. Also if I don’t balance my diet properly and get enough fiber, I can also have negative symptoms. That can unfortunately be easy to do sometimes, as many vegetables and other high-fiber foods can be IBS triggers for me. I also take an anti-depressant, for other issues, but I’ve found that it helps my IBS as well by helping my clinical depression, stress, and anxiety. In addition, it means I can eat more of the food I enjoy–I’m Italian, and living without garlic was miserable, so being able to eat garlic and onion again in my pasta sauce is a blessing!

      • Avatar Raven True says:

        Italians are one of the groups who have very high levels of MTHFr deficiency. You can get a simple test at your doctors, or do one yourself at 23 AND ME FOR 99.00

  9. Avatar cjlynne83 says:

    Im so glad to finally get relief from my stomach pain. My doctor asked me to try the fodmap diet and it work. I also started to take a gas aid after every meal. I always do that now. This was controlling my life and now it is under control. My special little green pill is my stomach savior

  10. Avatar Kevia Goode-Barber says:

    I’ve always had a slight intolerance to dairy products, but after returning from overseas in 08′, I noticed my intolerance was caused by more than dairy products. I saw a gastroenterologist who diagnosed me with IBS and wanted to prescribe so many things…I ended up seeing a Natural Doctor who asked if I’d ever had a cleansing to remove toxins and parasites, which I didn’t think I had. The Dr. Explains to me that many of the symptoms I’m experiencing such as food intolerance could be related to an overload of toxins and parasites. I tried a cleanse called Paraherb for 60 days and it has been a life changer. Some foods I am able to eat with minimal symptoms, and others I can now eat with absolutely no problems. I’m not a paid advertiser, I just wanted to share my story.

  11. Avatar T.E. says:

    I’m confused on how nortriptyline an antidepressant helped with food intolerance. Can you please clarify?

    • Avatar Mikey says:

      Anti depressants can both decrease stress, which can trigger IBS, and I believe they also work on the “brain of the gut” and receptors in the intestines to calm it as well

      • Avatar T.E. says:

        Thanks, I can see how it may help IBS people with anxiety/stress issues but I was speaking of food intolerance which is when the body can’t break down or process certain foods and it has an autoimmune response.

  12. Avatar lyndsey says:

    I dont no if this is anything to do with ibs but i get the most painful dtomach aches aftet i eat pasta and rice

  13. Avatar sarah says:

    I just started this fodmaps diet it took my doctors 7 years to find out what was wrong I suffer also with ibs and reflux since changing my eating habits my ibs has calmed down for the first time in years I also found this amazing young lady simular story her name is ella woodward (delicious ella) on youtube who makes the most yummy allergie free foods ☺ it nice to know there are others out there who understand what you go through

  14. Avatar sarah says:

    Also tesco do alot of good allergie free foods for ppl who cant have wheat dairy gluten ect..

  15. Avatar Jamie-Lee Fox says:

    I’ve been suffering with the exact same thing. Dairy and fructose are my kryptonite. Awesome post 🙂

  16. Avatar Kirk says:

    I was just diagnosed with Eosinophilic Gastroenteritis six months ago, which the symptoms are the same. I’ve tried diet elimination, (gluten, soy, rice, nuts, dairy, fish, and eggs) which helps a little, medication controllers (prednisone, singular, Pantoprazole, and lorazepam to control my anxiety issues). I’ve been admitted to the hospital where it took a team of doctors to figure out what it was. I’ve taken numerous test, so much so I don’t think there are anymore test I can take without going crazy. I am currently going to an allergist weekly for allergy irritants, which is frustrating. My diet now consist of a Paleo type diet and totally gluten free, which is really, reay hard because I love bread, cakes, and cookies. So far I can’t find a gluten free bread that taste good, I did find cakes and cookies that are good. Everything product wise I eat is organic only, which gets expensive. (Is it me, or shouldn’t it be cheaper to buy foods without pesticides in them? Don’t the pesticideGMOs cost money?). After all the testing, the countless blood studies, the change in diet, and everything else involved, I still get a very dull nauseating pain from time to time when I wake up that can last all day long, even after taking the Promethazine or Ondansetron. This happens randomly and without cause. I can have a day without pain, followed by three days of pain, or more. I don’t like to hear about how others are suffering from the same things, because no one should suffer from this, but it’s nice to know I’m not alone in this fight. The fight against GMOs, and it’s causes will be a long one. My thinking on all of this is we can only control what is given to us, no matter what.

  17. Avatar Skye says:

    IBS is awful, especially when incorporate with food intolerances. I’m gluten intolerant, and I still have all of the severe symptoms of a person with celiac. It’s caused other intolerances in my body as well to a variety of foods like quinoa, peanuts, corn, potatoes, excess sugar and sucrolose, excess lactose, etc. It makes it so hard to eat right, especially around others when they can eat everything. It’s a never ending struggle to just be pain-free for once.

  18. Avatar Raven True says:

    I’m NAFLD, with genetic susceptibility to gluten, lactose, and sulfas (chicken, garlic, broccoli) which was pretty much everything I ate before. I tried everything. To no avail. Finally went to every kind of doctor I could think of and the immunologist and the geneticist finally sorted me out. It’s been six months since I was puking bile, and six months before that. It’s heaven. It really is. Oh and the biggy which was Folic Acid, which is in everything, and is not a real food at all. It’s stabilized Folate, but the stabilization makes it toxic to 1 out of 5 and as many as 1 out of 3 in some populations (Asians, Italians, Mexicans) and they give it to pregnant women!

  19. Avatar Kristy Gee says:

    I wish I could find a doctor that took my issues seriously enough to help me – even after a bunch of testing, I’ve been pretty much on my own. I gave up hope after my last doctor visit.
    “Your symptoms sound like IBD but since we’re still not really sure, we’ll just call it IBS.” Helpful, right? Considering they’re treated two different ways…
    So I’ve been working on elimination diets like the above and found some that make my life miserable. It helps to an extent, but I still get symptoms at random though – likely due to certain additives or preservatives that I haven’t identified yet. Ibuprofen and anti-diarrheals help me out.
    So far: Whole wheat products, cauliflower, sweet potatoes, oatmeal, freshly squeezed apple juice, coffee, onions, red pizza sauce, tuna, sausages, and anything high fat or highly acidic.

    • Avatar dawndmd3 says:

      Kristy, once I stopped eating gluten products, about 2 weeks later my IBS completely stopped and never returned.

    • Avatar Raven True says:

      That sounds like Non alcoholic fatty liver disease to me, from the similarity to my symptoms. For that you need an endoscopy and a genetic test like 23 and me for food sensitivities/true allergies.

      • Avatar Michelle says:

        I wanted to do the 23 and me, but I thought they stopped providing health genetic info? Their website says that you only receive ancestral info now. Have you done it recently and received MTHFR info, etc?

    • Avatar Michelle says:

      Use ibuprofen with EXTREME caution. Please. I most likely damaged my stomach and intestinal lining from using that for pain years ago. If you have digestive issues, you should definitely read up on the dangers of ibuprofen use.

  20. Avatar fact-checking is cool says:

    Thanks for the Nortriptyline ad.

    Drugs are unnecessary to fix this issue, adhering to the diet and not being a baby about eating a more limited diet is all that is necessary. Why the [expletive] would a doctor describe an antidepressant for an intestinal issue? You have a stupid, dangerous and greedy doctor.

    It seems like many think they are simply entitled to eat anything that exists and if they can’t then they are “being deprived” and it becomes virtuous to find any way possible to continue eating those foods. That is not reality or life, so deal with it, eliminate the foods, and move on (or take Nortriptyline and I guess enjoy the excessive sweating, nausea, sex drive changes and suicidal benefits).

    I’m speaking as someone who has suffered from these problems for many years (all my life) to where I really was near suicide, and I now control it with a very limited diet and have no symptoms—it can be done without drugs. Everyone is different, and it took me years to figure out how, but it is worth pursuing. Using drugs to avoid feeling the symptoms so you can eat the things you want does not fix your problem, nor does it prevent the future complications of your problem, it merely masks it and adds new problems (and may also inhibit any solutions from working).

    Things like psyllium fiber can help with symptoms, and avoiding things with bacterial cultures (yogurt, cheese, fermented things, probiotics, prebiotics). Magnesium is also commonly a trigger for a sensitive intestine as IBSD in some seems prone to exaggerate the standard laxative effect of magnesium, causing diarrhea. Magnesium is in many supplements and high in many vegetables, like spinach, etc. It can also be absorbed through the skin in certain cases (like epsom salt baths) but it depends on the sensitivity of the individual. FODMAPs and GAPS/Specific Carbohydrates diets are good places to start for effective diets. Keep in mind these are temporary measures to rebalance what is happening in the gut.

    While most probiotics will feed on any fructose and make matters worse, particularly bacteria derived from milk products, I have had success using HMF Neuro Caps as it is apparently human derived and contains a strain of bacteria known for consuming fructose without producing gas. It took about two weeks of gas before it was set, and after it felt really good and there was no longer gas, ever. Of course, depending on what is happening with your flora, I can’t say this works for everyone though the company’s research suggests it works in most (however much that can be trusted…).

    Some inaccuracies in your article:

    “To break fructose malabsorption down into simple terms, it’s my body that does not appropriately break down this simple sugar.”

    Actually, it doesn’t get broken down, the real problem is that it is not being absorbed through the intestinal wall, hence fructose “malabsorption”.

    “In people with fructose malabsorption, however, the body cannot entirely handle the fructose, carrying some of it into the colon, where bacteria attack it, causing the intestine to swell.”

    Bacteria eat fructose, they don’t attack it (and if they did, how would attacking it cause the intestine to “swell”? And what does “swell” mean? Bacteria are not to be confused with the cells related to immunity…). When bacteria eat fructose they produce gas as a by-product. Fructose acts like a super food for bacteria and their ensuing rapid growth causes bacterial overgrowth which leads to diarrhea (and of course a lot more bacteria make a lot more gas).

    • Avatar Heather says:

      Im sorry but what gives u the right to call people who take an antidepressant a baby?! Not everyones symptoms can magically disappear by changing their diets! I have IBS iv suffered with it for years trying to avoid trigger foods and watching my diet but it didnt work for me and I didn’t want to take medication for it but it got out of control that I had to try something, I’m happy I did because I feel better and worry less about getting sick. So yes I’m on an antidepressant and number one a doctor doesn’t throw a large dosage at you that someone with depression would start out with. So don’t you dare make someone feel weak for going on medication.

  21. Avatar Sara Taylor says:

    Just to clarify facts in this article relating to paragraph 2: IBD is NOT “irritable bowel disease” it IS Immflamatory Bowel Disease of which Crohn’s Disease and Colitis are unfortunate members. Both of which are currently incurable and can be very serious.
    Differentiating between Irritable and Immflamatory is important in this instance for patients suffering from various bowel symptoms.

  22. Avatar Hdefe says:

    I have severe ibs -d.. I know there are foods I have to avoid like onions and garlic.. But, most of the time I’d get sick over anything. I also notice eating a large meal would cause me to be in severe pain and if I was out like work or a party I’d have to leaving letting every one down. Yes, this caused me great anxiety when I’d go anywhere to eat. Sometimes I’d starve all day at work so I wouldn’t worry about getting sick. This is no way to live. I was tested for everything, did blood work, barium swallow test, colonoscopy and I was diagnosis with spastic IBS. Could be worse I guess. Finally I got on lomotil and amytriptyline which is a lifesaver but I still get occasional attacks..but if anyone has these awful symptoms, don’t feel embarrassed or ashamed, get treatment to live ur life.

  23. Avatar Stefanie Bates says:

    When the meds don’t work (they never did for me), try 1-2 Citrucel pills per day. It’s a fiber supplement so it can’t hurt and it has helped cure me of my awful horribly painful almost daily IBS attacks! A doctor recommended I give it a shot after growing up with the awful condition and suffering my entire life with multiple food triggers. I maybe have an attack once a year now, it’s made the most amazing difference for me!!

  24. Avatar Lesley Claridge says:

    I have IBS and find if I eat egg, banana or fried mushrooms I can be in pain for hours. Also my morning cuppa used to make me feel sick, even using skimmed milk, so I tried Arla lactose free and it’s helped me stop the sickness 🙂 I may still go back to doctors as I’m on a tablet called Omeprazole which can help bloatness etc but doesn’t cure.

  25. Avatar maryslim says:

    I’m interested in what you have. Just found out I am glucose intolerant and I need to learn all i can.

    • Avatar dawndmd says:

      I stopped eating gluten completely and cut way back on my starchy carbohydrates. I only eat 1 starchy carbohydrate a day, i.e. 1/2 cup rice, or, 1 small potato, or 3/4 cup of brown rice pasta. Email me at Maryslim and I will share with you some of my healthy recipes. For the first time in 25 years I was not diagnosed with hypoglycemia after changing my diet to gluten free and low carb. 🙂

  26. Avatar Melissa says:

    Same experience here. I had low-level IBS for about a year, with occasional severe bouts of gas and the runs. Did some research online and discovered the fructose malabsorption research, and it all made sense, because I have no issues with lactose or gluten. Went to a gastro to rule out any other causes, and he agreed it was FODMAP sensitivity and prescribed a good probiotic and dietary changes. I take Align every day, and try to limit trigger foods. Now I eat normally and only really have to avoid onions and certain polyol sweeteners (sorbitol, xylitol, maltitol, isomalt, etc).

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