Do You Have Trouble With Dairy? The Top Symptoms Of This Food Intolerance

Do You Have Trouble With Dairy? The Top Symptoms Of This Food Intolerance Dr. Will Cole

Remember growing up and seeing all the “Got Milk?” commercials? It’s been engrained for so long in our minds that dairy is super healthy for you. And while dairy does have a lot of good things about it - it’s high in protein and healthy fats - it is also one of the most common food sensitivities in the world.

As a functional medicine practitioner, it’s my job to help people heal their relationship with food. By understanding why dairy can be inflammatory, we can begin to take the steps necessary for healing. Just because you have an issue with dairy now, doesn't always mean you can’t ever have it again. It all comes down to your individual biochemistry and personal health case. Read on to learn how to tell whether or not dairy is an issue for you and the exact steps you can take to facilitate healing.


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What does dairy consist of?

There is no doubt that dairy is delicious. Chances are, some of your favorite foods contain dairy. The most popular forms of dairy include:

  • Milk
  • Cheese
  • Butter
  • Ice cream
  • Sour cream
  • Yogurt

While some forms of dairy are obvious, dairy can also be hiding in seemingly non-dairy foods like dressings and sauces and labeled as milk protein or whey protein.

The difference between a dairy intolerance and a dairy allergy

If dairy isn’t necessarily good or bad, how do you know if dairy is affecting you? Ultimately, it comes down to your symptoms and what level of reaction your body is having from dairy:

Food allergies: True food allergies come from an immediate and severe reaction of the immune system to some aspect of a particular food. 

Food intolerances: Unlike allergies, these do not directly involve the immune system. Instead, intolerances occur when your body is unable to digest certain foods (such as dairy) or when your digestive system becomes irritated by them. These are usually the result of enzyme deficiencies.

Food sensitivities: These are similar to intolerances, but it’s often less clear why someone reacts poorly to a certain food. Food sensitivities may result in a more delayed reaction, and you might be able to digest a small amount of the food without issues.

Symptoms of a dairy allergy

Symptoms of dairy allergies often come in the form of an immediate, severe reaction. If left untreated, they can even be fatal depending on your particular health case. These symptoms can include:

  • Wheezing
  • Itching around your mouth
  • Hives
  • Coughing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Vomiting
  • Swelling of your tongue, throat, or lips

Occasionally, you might have a delayed allergic reaction that is less severe and occurs a few hours after ingesting dairy:

  • Stomach pain and cramps
  • Itchy, watery eyes
  • Congestion and runny nose
  • Diarrhea or bloody stools

Symptoms of dairy intolerance

A dairy intolerance on the other hand, is a lot more complex. Symptoms of a dairy intolerance could be better summed up as dairy inflammation since the root of any sort of intolerance or sensitivity is typically underlying, chronic inflammation. 

So what does dairy inflammation feel like? Since everyone’s biochemistry is different, dairy inflammation symptoms can manifest in a wide-variety of problems that can seem unrelated. 

  • Acid reflux/heartburn
  • Acne
  • Anxiety
  • Brain fog
  • Digestive distress (bloating, constipation, gas, etc.)
  • Eczema
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches/migraines
  • Joint pain
  • Mood swings
  • Muscle pain
  • Nausea
  • Sinus infections
  • Stomach cramps
  • Weight gain
  • Weight loss

Think You Have A Food Intolerance? Symptoms, Diagnosis, And Healing

Does dairy cause inflammation in the body?

To understand how dairy causes inflammation we need to go back to your gut. Most people that I see with a dairy intolerance also have a compromised gut - also known as leaky gut syndrome. When your gut lining is compromised it allows food particles and other bacteria into your bloodstream where they don’t belong. This causes your immune system to kick into overdrive and leads to a cascade of chronic inflammation.

Because of this overactive immune system, your body can end up reacting to almost any food passing through, regardless of if it is considered “healthy” or not. However, dairy is one of the foods I see give people with gut issues and autoimmune conditions (where inflammation tends to be higher) the most issues. Usually dairy inflammation symptoms are triggered by these aspects of dairy:

1. Lactose

One issue with dairy occurs when the body is not able to break down the lactose – otherwise known as lactose intolerance. This occurs when the small intestine is not producing the enzyme lactase. While it is commonly thought that the minority of the general public has this issue, the reality is that over 65% of the worldwide population, (1) and up to 90% in some cultures, has an issue creating enough lactase. 

2. Casein

Casein, the protein found in dairy, can be an inflammation trigger for people with gut problems such as leaky gut syndrome, IBS, and autoimmune conditions. Beta-casein, the main type, has two subtypes: A1 and A2. 

In the regular milk you find in the grocery store, the A1 subtype is more common (2) because most cows in the United States have casein gene mutations that happened over the thousands of years of crossbreeding different kinds of cows. Beta A2 casein is the OG, ancient casein. Beta A1 casein is one reason people can be intolerant to dairy, with studies pointing to A1 as a trigger (3) for digestive problems and inflammation. A2, on the other hand, has been shown to be more digestible and richer in vitamins.

3. Conventional dairy

Cows on most major dairy farms today are given hormones and antibiotics, live in unhealthy conditions, and are fed corn instead of grass, even though grass is their natural food. Their milk is then pasteurized and homogenized and the fat is removed. To make up for nutrient loss, synthetic vitamins are then injected into the milk, trying to stimulate what nature had already included in the whole-food form. Another common issue I find in people who don’t tolerate dairy is a reaction to either the corn the cow was fed or the higher levels of pro-inflammatory omega-6 fats in regular grain-fed dairy.

Which dairy products are most inflammatory?

If you have an inflammatory reaction to dairy, the first step is to address any underlying gut dysfunctions and work toward lowering inflammation levels. Until this happens, dairy could still be a major problem for you. However, I have seen some people be able to tolerate small amounts of organic, grass-fed dairy and ghee during and after healing their gut. 

Dairy from grass-fed cows usually have lower levels of the inflammatory beta-A1 casein, don’t have any added hormones, and doesn’t go through the same processing as conventional diary. You can also find grass-fed dairy that is specifically made with only A2 casein for an added layer of protection against dairy inflammation symptoms.

Ghee is also a safe alternative to butter as the only difference is that it has the milk protein casein completely removed.

Seeking help from a functional medicine doctor

In order to know for sure whether or not dairy is an issue for you, a functional medicine practitioner can run various labs to determine if a sensitivity is present and the cause. Some of the labs I run to make sure you are addressing everything you need to heal include microbiome labs, gut permeability labs, inflammation markers, and a complete food reactivity panel.

In my telehealth functional medicine clinic, I also walk people through different types of elimination diets. By removing certain foods like dairy for a period of time, it gives your body a chance to heal before carefully reintroducing it to either limit the inflammatory response or determine if it is something your body can handle.

Read Next: A Complete Guide To The Carnivore Diet: Benefits, Risks & Food List

If you believe dairy is an issue for you and need help with taking the next step toward healing and overcoming food sensitivities, schedule a telehealth functional medicine consultation.

As one of the first functional medicine telehealth clinics in the world, we provide webcam health consultations for people around the globe.

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  1. Lactose Intolerance NIH May 26, 2020
  2. Beja-Pereira, A., Luikart, G., England, P. et al. Gene-culture coevolution between cattle milk protein genes and human lactase genes. Nat Genet 35, 311–313 (2003).
  3. Pal, Sebely et al. “Milk Intolerance, Beta-Casein and Lactose.” Nutrients vol. 7,9 7285-97. 31 Aug. 2015, doi:10.3390/nu7095339

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Evidence-based reviewed article

Dr. Will Cole, DNM, IFMCP, DC is a leading functional medicine expert who consults people around the globe, starting one of the first functional medicine telehealth centers in the world. Named one of the top 50 functional and integrative doctors in the nation, Dr. Will Cole provides a functional medicine approach for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, and brain problems. He is also the host of the popular The Art of Being Well podcast and the New York Times bestselling author of Intuitive Fasting, Ketotarian, Gut Feelings, and The Inflammation Spectrum.

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