Medically reviewed on May 4, 2020. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.
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Do you sometimes experience symptoms like abdominal bloating or stomach discomfort—and suspect dairy products are at fault? Dairy sensitivity is different from cow’s milk allergy, a dairy allergy or any other food allergy. Milk or products made from milk may trigger a dairy sensitivity in some people, which might lead to a number of unpleasant symptoms.
Dairy sensitivities are a kind of food sensitivity. Taking an at-home food sensitivity test—and using the results to guide a temporary elimination diet—may help you discover what milk products or foods you’re sensitive to. You can then make dietary adjustments to minimize the symptoms you experience.
Here, you’ll learn more about the potential signs and symptoms of a dairy sensitivity. But before we get to that, let’s discuss how a dairy sensitivity is different than a lactose intolerance.
A dairy sensitivity isn’t the same as a lactose intolerance. Knowing how these two are different can help you better understand your body’s response to dairy products—so you can take steps to reduce the symptoms you may be experiencing.
When someone is lactose intolerant, they aren’t able to digest lactose (and absorb it)—which is the main sugar found in dairy food products. Being unable to digest lactose leads to digestive issues. People who are lactose intolerant have a deficiency of lactase, the enzyme needed to digest lactose. If you have a lactose intolerance, then your symptoms may vary in severity based on how much dairy—or even the type of dairy—you’ve consumed.
Although it can produce symptoms that are similar to dairy intolerance symptoms, a dairy sensitivity is connected to an immune response to milk antigens (milk protein structures that are found in milk or milk products)—not an enzyme deficiency—though the mechanism isn’t fully understood.
These are some common dairy food products which may trigger either an intolerance or sensitivity:
Certain foods like sauces, gravies, cookies, quiche, soups, breakfast cereal, and custards might also contain lactose. Milk and dairy products can also appear on food labels as whey, whey protein, milk casein, milk sugar, buttermilk, sour cream, milk byproducts, and more.
If you often feel bloated to the point of discomfort or excessive abdominal bloating or swelling, a food you regularly eat could be at fault. Dairy products—such as milk, cheese, and yogurt—are candidate foods to consider when trying to determine what foods cause bloating, since this is one possible dairy sensitivity symptom.
Stomach pain and discomfort, like abdominal pain and cramping, may also be brought on by dairy sensitivity.
Dairy could be a headache trigger: headache and migraine frequency may be also connected to dairy products if you have a dairy sensitivity.
Maybe you frequently experience one or more of the symptoms mentioned above. If that’s the case, how can you tell if the cause is a dairy sensitivity, milk intolerance, or some other food in your diet (like gluten)?
Undergoing a two-part elimination diet is one of the best ways to see if your symptoms could be related to a specific kind of dairy product. Here's how to do an elimination diet
What if your symptoms don’t seem to correspond with the presence or absence of dairy in your diet? Then it’s possible that some other food in your diet is contributing to your symptoms, and it’s worth considering an elimination diet to find the culprit (or culprits).
An elimination diet, however, can be a somewhat tedious, time-consuming process because it isn’t always easy to know what foods to temporarily eliminate first and then add back. Typically, you’d start by eliminating foods you suspect are behind your symptoms—but since most of us eat a varied diet made up of many different foods, your list of “suspect” foods could be pretty long. Where should you start in that case?
The Everlywell at-home Food Sensitivity Test may help guide your elimination diet, and might make it easier for you to determine if certain foods are at fault for your symptoms. This test tells you how your IgG antibodies react to 96 common foods. Foods that have a high IgG reactivity level are often targeted first in an elimination diet—an approach that’s commonly used to investigate symptoms potentially related to food.
The test—which helps you start an elimination diet to discover foods you may be sensitive to (not foods you’re allergic or intolerant to)—is easy to use and understand. You just collect a small sample of blood (with a simple finger prick) and send your sample to a lab for testing (a prepaid shipping label is included with the kit). You then get your results securely online, which you can view on your devices whenever you want to conveniently guide an elimination diet.
Learn more about the at-home Food Sensitivity Test (tests 96 common foods), and also check out the Food Sensitivity Comprehensive Test (tests 204 foods).
What are the signs of gluten sensitivity?
Benefits of keeping a food journal
Dairy alternatives to consider for dairy-related issues
1. Fassio F, Facioni MS, Guagnini F. Lactose Maldigestion, Malabsorption, and Intolerance: A Comprehensive Review with a Focus on Current Management and Future Perspectives. Nutrients. 2018;10(11):1599. doi:10.3390/nu10111599
2. Lactose Intolerance. National Institutes of Health. URL. Accessed May 4, 2020.