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4 possible dairy sensitivity symptoms

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.


Do you sometimes experience symptoms like bloating or stomach discomfort—and suspect dairy products are at fault? 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 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.

Dairy sensitivity vs. 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 products. 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 (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 products which may trigger either an intolerance or sensitivity:

  • Cow’s milk
  • Cheese
  • Ice cream
  • Butter
  • Yogurt

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.

Potential dairy sensitivity symptoms

Bloating

If you often feel bloated to the point of discomfort or excessive abdominal 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’s causing your bloating, since this is one possible dairy sensitivity symptom.

Stomach pain

Stomach pain and discomfort, like abdominal cramping, may also be brought on by dairy sensitivity.

Skin issues

Though scientists haven’t yet confirmed a link between skin conditions and drinking or eating dairy products, some people see a reduction in skin symptoms (like acne-related flare-ups) after removing dairy from their diet.

Headaches and migraines

Headache and migraine frequency may be also connected to dairy products if you have a dairy sensitivity.

Is it a dairy sensitivity, milk intolerance, or something else?

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)?

Try an elimination diet

Undergoing a temporary elimination diet is one of the best ways to see if your symptoms could be related to dairy products. Here's how to do an elimination diet:

  • Start by temporarily cutting dairy products out of your diet—then gradually reintroduce dairy into your diet.
  • If you notice that your symptoms reappear when adding back different dairy products, then the elimination diet suggests you might have a dairy sensitivity or intolerance. If you think it may be an intolerance, you might consider either permanently removing dairy products from your diet or taking an over-the-counter lactase enzyme supplement. If it’s a sensitivity, you may find relief by removing dairy products for an extended period of time.

Take a food sensitivity test

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’re 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 foods cause bloating?

How to do an elimination diet

What are the signs of gluten sensitivity?

Benefits of keeping a food journal


References

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.