Food Intolerance Symptoms

Many people today report that they have food intolerance symptoms but what exactly does this mean?

Put very simply symptoms of food intolerance are caused by sensitivity or non-allergic food hypersensitivity1. This is an adverse reaction to a food, drink, additives or ingredients.

Unlike classical food allergy however, food intolerance or sensitivity as it is also known, does not involve an immune response to the food, in which the body mistakenly identifies food as harmful, creating specific disease fighting antibodies (called immunoglobulin E or IgE) to fight the problem food. Rather food sensitivity is usually caused by an abnormal gut microbiota or digestive flora, which lead to bacterial fermentation of the large bowel or intestine2. It is this mal-fermentation of the large intestine that results in symptoms.

Food intolerance symptoms are often delayed and can present hours after eating the offending food. They are quite different from food allergy symptoms, which tend to occur within minutes of eating the offending food. Food Intolerance Symptoms Include Abdominal Pain Food intolerance symptoms are focused primarily on the gut and include rumblings, bloating, gas, pain, nausea, especially at mealtimes as well as diarrhea and constipation. Complaints outside of the gut are also common and include headaches, tiredness, inability to concentrate, mood swings, sleep disturbances as well as food cravings and aversions. Aching muscles and joints, an irritable bladder, skin rashes and hypersensitivity to smells such as gas, perfume and paints are also common food intolerance symptoms3.

Some people are intolerant to just one food group (e.g. dairy) or a few foods only, whilst others become intolerant to multiple foods. Those with many food intolerances will experience almost constant food intolerance symptoms. The culprit foods are often those which are eaten on a very regular basis such as wheat and dairy.

How Can Probiotics Help My Food Intolerance Symptoms?

Given that the majority of food intolerance symptoms tend to be caused by an abnormal gut microbiota, which in turn mal-ferments food residues in the colon, producing symptoms, it seems logical that probiotics, with their ability to improve the digestive flora, have a role in the treatment of food intolerance.

Taking probiotics can help to replace some of the key species of digestive bacteria required for normal digestive function but which are absent or lacking in number in food intolerance. By ingesting probiotics, you can increase the good bacteria in your large intestine, which both:

  • Replaces some of the "bad" bacteria with good.

  • Helps to rebalance the gut microbiota leading to a reduction of abnormal fermentation, which in turn reduces the unpleasant food intolerance symptoms.
Additionally, as Professor J O Hunter, Consultant Physician in Gastroenterology and lead researcher at the Gastroenterology Research Unit, Addenbrookes Hospital, UK, believes that probiotics may also be beneficial to digestion overall by reducing the secretion of mucus and fluids into the intestine (reducing diarrhea), preventing other bacteria from sticking to the lining of the gut and repelling other unhelpful bacteria by the production of natural antibiotic substances4.

Evidence Supporting the Use of Probiotics for Food Intolerance

There are currently very few specific studies on the use of probiotics for food intolerance. This is due to the study of the health benefits of probiotics being relatively new as well as a general lack of recognition and poor understanding of food intolerance on the part of the medical community.

However, an increasing body of scientific evidence exists in support of the use of probiotics for digestion and indeed many such studies indicate that probiotics may be helpful for many food intolerance symptoms. Examples of such probiotics are Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG (marketed as Culturelle), which is perhaps the most widely studied probiotic in children and adults. This probiotic has been shown in medical studies to reduce abdominal pain. Likewise Lactobacillus acidophilus has been proven to alleviate constipation.

Have a look at our table below to see which other species and strains of probiotic have been scientifically proven to help symptoms which occur in food intolerance.

SymptomsName of Probiotic Strain/s Proven to Help
ConstipationL. acidophilus7, L. casei Shirota8, Escherichia Coli Nissle 1977 strain9, Bifidobacterium infantalis10
Diarrhea (chronic)L rhamnosus GG11, Saccharomyces boulardii12
Abdominal painL. plantarum, Bifidobacterium infantalis13, L. acidophilus14
Gas/FlatulenceL. plantarum, Bifidobacterium infantis15
Abdominal Bloating/DistensionBifidobacterium infantis
EczemaL.rhamnosus GG16
RhinitisBifidobacterium longum17, L. acidophilus18, L.rhamnosus GG

Additionally, given that the digestive flora is unstable in the majority of many people with food intolerance, and that species of probiotics belonging to both the Lactobacilli and Bifidobacteria groups are often reduced in such people19, it seems sensible to use probiotics to increase levels of these important bacteria. Indeed Professor John Hunter, Consultant Physician in Gastroenterology, also believes that that probiotics will play an important role in the treatment of food intolerance in the future.

Taking Probiotics for Symptoms of Food Intolerance

When starting or increasing your probiotic supplement, it is possible that you may experience a temporary worsening of your usual symptoms. This exacerbation is probably the result of the death of unhelpful micro flora in the bowel.

Be Careful When Using Probiotics for Food Intolerance Symptoms

The more food intolerances you have, the more damaged your digestive flora is likely to be and thus the greater the possibility that you will experience such an exacerbation of symptoms as you introduce or increase your probiotics. Such reactions are often referred to as "die-off" reactions. Be careful not to confuse them with intolerance reactions. Unlike intolerance reactions, which often worsen with subsequent ingestion, "die-off" symptoms usually subside over time with subsequent doses.

Don’t let the possibility of these reactions dissuade you from taking probiotics though. In our experience, they can be very helpful for food intolerance symptoms.

Tips for Taking Probiotics for Symptoms of Food Intolerance

There are a few steps you can take to make the introduction of probiotics easier. We have compiled a list to help you:
  • Begin by taking your probiotics in powder form. This type of probiotics is less likely to include fillers, which can aggravate food intolerance symptoms. Also using a powder probiotic allows you to begin by taking very small doses of probiotics, thereby reducing the chance and severity of "die-off" reactions. Both Custom Probiotics and VSL3 probiotic powders are excellent starter probiotics for food intolerance symptoms. In fact Custom Probiotics powders include a tiny scoop, which makes introducing and increasing tiny doses easy!

  • Be wary of products that contain substances such as inulin fiber or fructooligosaccharides (FOS).Whilst these substances are theoretically supposed to increase the growth of friendly bacteria in the colon, in food intolerant people, where the gut flora is very unbalanced, they appear to promote the growth of other bacteria, worsening symptoms and the situation in general.

  • Choose product with that includes several different species and strains of probiotics. As a food intolerant person, you are unlikely to be sure which key types of good bacteria are missing from or are inadequate in number in your bowel and therefore taking a multi-strain product increases the chance of one of the strains of bacteria in the product being effective

  • Take a high potency probiotic. If you have food intolerance symptoms, the chances are that your digestive flora is very unbalanced, lacking in many of the good species required for normal digestion. Given the vast numbers of bacteria in the bowel, a high number of good bacteria are required to readdress the balance.

  • Rotate your probiotics so that you take different products on different days. If you can, ensure your probiotic brands contain a good mixture of different strains and species of bacteria. Choose a rotation length (e.g. 2 day, 3 day, 4 day) to suit your situation. A two-day program for example means that the probiotic taken on Monday will not be ingested again until Wednesday. Likewise on a three-day rotation, the probiotic taken on Monday will not be consumed again until the Thursday. Such a schedule will avoid constant ingestion of the same probiotic and thereby will reduce the likelihood of you becoming over-exposed to the probiotic and intolerant to it.

  • If having tried all the above you are still suffering from adverse reactions to your probiotics, reduce your dose temporarily and then ramp back up slowly over the coming days. If this still does not solve the problem, and the "die-off" reaction persists, take you probiotics on alternate days to begin with, allowing yourself a "rest" day (or even rest days) to recover.

As well as following these handy hints, have a look at our buyer guide and price comparison tool to ensure that you buy only quality products at good prices. Good luck!!


1.Non-allergic food hypersensitivity is the medical term used for food intolerance.

2.Hunter, J O; Irritable Bowel Solutions, Vermilion, London, 2007

3.Hunter, J.O et al; The Management of Multiple Food Intolerances, Foods Matter, December 2009

4. Hunter J O; Irritable Bowel Solutions, Vermilion, London, 2007

5.Gawronska A. et al;A Randomised double-Blind Placebo Controlled Trial of Lactobacillus GG for Abdominal Pain Disorders in Children, Aliment Pharmocol Ther,2007 Jan 15;25(2):177-84

6.Andrews PJ, et al; Putting Back the Bugs: Bacterial Treatment Relieves Chronic Constipation and Symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Med J Australia, 1993; 159:633-634

7. Alm L. et al;The Effect of Acidophilus Milk in the Treatment of Constipation in Hospitalized Geriatric Patients, XV Symposium, Swedish Nutrition Foundation, 131-138, 1983

8.Koebnick C et al; Probiotic Beverage Containing Lactobacillus Casei Shirota Improves Gastrointestinal Symptoms in Patients with Chronic Constipation, Canadian Journal of Gastroenterology, 2003 Nov;17(11):655-9.

9.Mollenbrink et al, 1994

10.O'Mahony L al; Lactobacillus and bifidobacterium in irritable bowel syndrome: symptom responses and relationship to cytokine profiles. Gastroenterology. 128(3):541-51, 2005.

11.O, Sullivan et al, 2000 (288 BB)

12.Periti, P. et al; Preclinical and Clinical Pharmacology of Biotherapeutic Agents: Saccharomyces Boulaardii, Journal of Chemotherapy13: 473-493 (2001)

13.O'Mahony L, et al; Lactobacillus and bifidobacterium in irritable bowel syndrome: symptom responses and relationship to cytokine profiles, Gastroenterology. 128(3):541-51, 2005.

14.This had been shown to be effective when used in conjunction with L. Plantarum. Saggioro A; Probiotics in the treatment of irritable bowel syndrome, Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology, 38(6 Suppl):S104-6, 2004.

15.O’ Mahony et al; Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium in Relation to Irritable Bowel Syndrome: Symptoms Responses and Relationship to Cytokine Profiles, Gasteroenterology, 128: 541 2005

16.Passeron et al;Prebiotics and Synbiotics: Two Promising Approaches for the Treatment of Atopic Dermatitis in Children above 2 Years, Allergy, 2006 April; 61(4): 431-7

17.Xiao, et al; Probiotics in the Treatment of Japanese Cedar Pollinosis: A Double-Blind Placebo-Controlled Trial, Clin Exp Allergy, 2006 Nov; 36(11): 1425-35

18.Ishida et al; Effect of Fermented Milk with Lactobacillus Acidophilus strain L-92 on Symptoms of Japanese Cedar Pollen Allergy: A randomized Placebo Controlled Trial,Biosci Biotechnol Biochem, 2005 Sep; 69(9):1652-60

19.Hunter J.O,; Solve Your Food Intolerance,5th Edition, Vermillion, London, 2005

Return from Probiotics for Food Intolerance Symptoms to Probiotics for Digestive Diseases

Share this page:
Enjoy this page? Please share it with others. Here's how..

Would you prefer to share this page with others by linking to it?

  1. Click on the HTML link code below.
  2. Copy and paste it, adding a note of your own, into your blog, a Web page, forums, a blog comment, your Facebook account, or anywhere that someone would find this page valuable.