You treated yourself to a sugary snack, and now your stomach is aching. It might not be the sugar, but if you find it happening after every sweet treat, it certainly could be the culprit. Here are some reasons why you may be dealing with stomach pain after eating sugar.
Read more: Why Stomach Pain Can Strike After Eating
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Carbs Cause Gas
Sugar is a carb, and most foods that contain carbohydrates can cause gas, according to the International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders. Some sugars cause more gas than others. These include:
- Lactose — the natural sugar found in milk and milk products, which many people can have a hard time digesting. You might find this in ice cream or baked goods.
- Fructose — the natural sugar found in fruits and some vegetables. You might also consume this when it's added as a sweetener in soft drinks and fruit juice.
- Sorbitol — technically a sugar alcohol that is found in certain fruits such as apples and pears. You might ingest this as an added sweetener in low-carb foods and candies.
Someone with a healthy digestive system can get a buildup of gas from these sugars, but the odds may be worse if they're dealing with certain conditions.
"There are certain people, especially those with IBS [irritable bowel syndrome] who have malabsorptive issues with specific types of sugar such as lactose or fructose," says Boston-based dietitian Erin Kenney, RD, LDN, author of Rewire Your Gut and founder of Nutrition Rewired. "Treating the underlying cause or limiting these foods can help alleviate the unwanted side effects from eating these foods."
The term "carbohydrate intolerance" is sometimes used to describe the inability to metabolize certain carbohydrates, such as lactose or fructose, normally. A March 2016 study in Nutrients notes that its prevalence is increasing in children as more and more carbohydrates and added sugars are consumed in the U.S. An author and dietitian for the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center says carb intolerance can cause bloating, stomach cramps, heartburn and fatigue.
Harmful Bacteria Issues
Our intestines house a population of microorganisms referred to as our "gut microbiota." According to a June 2017 article published in Biochemical Journal, diet is one of the main drivers that shapes the gut microbiota over our lifetime.
"Typically, sugar is absorbed in the upper intestinal tract, but when large amounts are consumed, some of the sugar passes through the intestines unabsorbed," Kenney says. "When sugar reaches your colon, it can inhibit the growth of beneficial bacteria and encourage the overgrowth of harmful bacteria, leading to dysbiosis."
Dysbiosis occurs when the bacteria in your gastrointestinal (GI) tract become imbalanced. A February 2015 review in Microbial Ecology in Health and Disease notes that dysbiosis of the gut microbiota is associated with:
- Inflammatory bowel disease, such as Crohn's and colitis.
- Irritable bowel syndrome.
- Celiac disease.
All of these conditions can create inflammation within the digestive system and have symptoms in common, including stomach pains, gassiness and nausea.
You can keep your gut microbiota thriving by eating a diet full of fiber-rich foods such as whole fruits and vegetables. Johns Hopkins Medicine recommends choosing low-fructose fruits such as oranges, grapefruit and bananas, which are easier to tolerate and will likely cause less gas.
Are You Stressed?
Ever found yourself turning to food during emotional situations? Stress actually promotes the overeating of highly enjoyable foods (such as sugary snacks) and weakens our bodies' ability to respond to stress, according to a June 2017 article in Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences.
Unfortunately, the combination of sugar and stress together can be enough to get your stomach aching. "Stress can be a big contributor to feeling sick after eating high amounts of sugar," Kenney says.
The American Psychological Association notes that stress can make pain, bloating, nausea and other stomach issues become more noticeable. Not only that, but it can impact your gut microbiota, which is impacted even further by the intake of sugar.
In stressful moments, Mayo Clinic recommends staying active, getting enough sleep and eating a variety of fruits, veggies and whole grains to restore calm to your gut life.
If you struggle with stomach pain after eating, it's best to plan a visit with your doctor to see what might be going on.
- International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders: “Foods That May Cause Gas”
- Erin Kenney, MS, RD, LDN, HCP, registered dietitian, Boston; author, Rewire Your Gut; founder, Nutrition Rewired
- Nutrients: “Diagnosing and Treating Intolerance to Carbohydrates in Children”
- Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center: “A Carb Intolerance May Be the Reason Weight Loss Is Difficult”
- Biochemical Journal: “Introduction to the Human Gut Microbiota”
- Microbial Ecology in Health and Disease: “Dysbiosis of the Gut Microbiota in Disease”
- Johns Hopkins Medicine: “5 Foods to Improve Your Digestion”
- Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences: “Self-Medication With Sucrose”
- American Psychological Association: “Stress Effects on the Body”
- Mayo Clinic: “Stress Management”
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.