Pain From Food Intolerance

A non-allergic food intolerance can cause chronic pain. And, the offending food can be one that you eat every day, that you enjoy, and that you would never suspect!

The wrong food for the wrong person can cause virtually any kind of pain and any kind of symptom. Not just inflammation and muscle pain, but even intense joint pain that can be diagnosed as rheumatoid arthritis!

It’s not technically an allergy; we’ll call it food intolerance.

Many people with chronic pain find that they can get partial or complete relief by identifying a food they’re intolerant to and removing it from their diet.



Food allergy is technically defined very narrowly as a “Type I hypersensitivity response” involving IgE antibodies.

This kind of allergic response is immediate, and it is potentially violent and life-threatening. An example is peanut allergy.

Other hypersensitivity responses to various substances, also technically “allergies,” have been numbered Type II through Type VI. For extra confusion, some of them have been implicated in food reactions, especially to gluten.



A food allergy, such as peanut allergy, is not very subtle.

In contrast, food intolerance can be hard to detect.

Symptoms are often delayed. It may take so long to get symptoms that you’ve eaten the food again before you get the symptoms. Or eaten other meals, or slept.

It might depend on the amount you eat, so that you might get no symptoms from a little of the food and enormous symptoms from a lot.

Or, you may get symptoms from such a small amount of a food (such as something hidden in processed food) that you didn’t even know you were eating it.

And, there’s an addictive aspect.

Frequently, you crave the food that is giving you pain. It even seems to relieve your pain or make you feel good.​


Notorious Pain-Causing Foods

Three groups of foods are notorious for causing pain.

They have several things in common:

  • They are pervasive foods that are hard to get away from.
  • We eat them often, sometimes at every meal.
  • They can ruin your life.

These foods are:

  • Nightshade vegetables and spices: potatoes, tomatoes, chili peppers, bell peppers, and related vegetables​
  • Dairy foods: cheese, pasteurized milk, ice cream, and other milk products
  • Wheat gluten: in wheat, barley, rye, and close relatives of wheat


In her books, such as Pain Free in Six Weeks, Dr. Sherry Rogers describes the excruciating pain that nightshades caused her and some of her patients. She believes that the first thing to try for any kind of pain is the nightshade-free diet.​


Pasteurized dairy and the milk proteins called casein seem to cause pain of all kinds.

People often notice the ​gut pain, but don’t realize that dairy is causing muscle or joint pain.

A casein-free diet is a common intervention for both gut and neurological problems.​


Intolerance to wheat gluten is associated with chronic pain, autoimmune diseases, and a surprising number of other conditions.

Celiac disease, a severe autoimmune reaction to gluten, can also be at the root of pain problems and other conditions.

My own doctor, now retired, believed that the number one cause of joint pain is wheat.


Other Pain-Causing Foods

Of course, any food can cause pain if you are intolerant to it.

However, there are some additional foods that often cause pain.

This list is based on foods listed in Dr. Neal Barnard’s Foods That Fight Pain:

  • Chocolate
  • Eggs
  • Citrus
  • Nuts
  • Peanuts
  • Onions
  • Corn
  • Apples
  • Bananas
  • Coffee
  • Yeast



Diagnosing Food Intolerance

Scratch tests, skin tests, and blood tests are interesting but not very reliable. In 25 years I have not seen real evidence that they are even helpful.

Probably this is because food is normally eaten, and what happens when you eat food isn’t the same as when you inject it or experiment with blood.

As far as I can tell, to test a food you have to actually eat it. So, all the testing I’ll discuss here will be testing by eating the food.​


Testing by Eating

Eliminating and testing foods one at a time is sometimes very successful. Success, however, depends on you having significant reactions to the exact foods that you guess and to not very many other foods.

When that doesn’t work, an diagnostic full elimination diet is a way to test nearly all foods all at once. It’s fraught with pitfalls, but it’s sometimes the only way to address food intolerance.

If you have a true allergy to a food, such as peanut allergy, it’s important to never “test” that food during a diagnostic diet. You might also be more likely to have dangerous unexpected reactions to other foods. You must be extremely cautious and should have medical supervision during any kind of elimination diet.



How to improve food tolerance

There are several techniques:

  • Temporarily avoid foods that make you sick: You give the immune system a rest and a chance to recover.
  • Heal the gut to prevent “leaking” of food particles into the system.
  • Take enzymes to improve digestion and the gut environment.
  • Take probiotics, fermented foods, or herbs to improve gut bacteria.



Food Intolerance is Not Forever

Food intolerance doesn’t have to be forever—but at the very least, you need a period of avoidance.

Typically, if you avoid a food for about a year, you may be able to eat it afterwards without symptoms. ​

Of course, this is a generalization. Every person and every situation and every food may be different.

There’s one exception: A person with celiac disease, a dangerous autoimmune reaction to wheat gluten, should permanently avoid wheat gluten.




An Overview of Adverse Food Reactions
The World’s Healthiest Foods