Wellness Watch: Dairy Sensitivity Symptoms You Can’t Ignore
In a world full of oat milk coffees, coconut milk ice creams, and a variety of vegan cheeses, it is clear that we’re moving closer and closer to a dairy-free world one day at a time. Whether you’re lactose intolerant, have a dairy allergy, or simply feel uncomfortable after eating an entire container of ice cream by yourself, you are not alone! Research shows that 1 in 6 people go dairy-free in their day-to-day lives, so if you suffer from unexplainable stomach pains, bloating, or severe discomfort, there is a chance you could be suffering from dairy sensitivity as well. Here are some dairy sensitivity symptoms you shouldn’t ignore.
- Dairy sensitivities include having either lactose intolerance or a dairy allergy. Lactose intolerance is digestive system-related, and a dairy allergy is immune system-related.
- Dairy allergy and lactose intolerance symptoms can often overlap, so it is important to visit a health care provider to receive an accurate diagnosis.
- There are a plethora of dairy-free alternatives to swap out in your diet to alleviate symptoms and ease discomfort.
What is dairy sensitivity?
Dairy sensitivity is an all-encompassing term that refers to both lactose intolerance and dairy allergies. While seemingly interchangeable, the two have stark differences. Surely, both will leave you doubled over in stomach pain (or potentially even worse), but let’s break down where the differences lie between different dairy sensitivities.
Let’s start with lactose. Lactose is the sugar, or carbohydrate, that is found in dairy. It is broken down in our bodies via lactase, an enzyme, in our small intestines. Babies produce lactase from birth, but starting around age two, lactase levels will start to dwindle. As a result, the older you are, the more your lactase levels may decrease. Essentially, this means that there is no stopping the lactose from heading straight to your colon undigested - creating excess gas and fluids in the process. This is why many people don’t notice dairy sensitivities until they’re older: just like everything else, they are welcomed with age!
If you are lacking lactase, this means you suffer from lactose intolerance. Fortunately, you are nowhere near alone; it is estimated that 65% of people lack the ability to break down lactose in the body, and anywhere from 30 to 50 million people in the United States alone are lactose intolerant.
On the other hand, dairy allergies occur when someone has an immune system response to one of the proteins in dairy: casein or whey. Casein is the “solid” part of milk that constitutes up to 80% of the protein found in milk. Whey is the “liquid” part of milk that makes up the other 20%. While found predominantly in dairy, these high-quality proteins can also be found in some granola bars, energy drinks, and canned tunas, in addition to a plethora of other non-dairy products.
A big difference between lactose intolerance and dairy allergies is that allergies are more severe; avoiding milk products completely is the only way to manage them. However, taking a Lactaid supplement when consuming dairy products can help to manage an intolerance.
Signs and symptoms
When it comes to having lactose intolerance, symptoms look like stomach pain and discomfort, bloating, constipation, gas, and diarrhea. Unfortunately, these dairy sensitivity symptoms can occur almost immediately after consuming the culprit, but it is also possible that they could be delayed and occur several days after. This makes it extremely challenging to determine what exactly is causing the problems if you are not officially diagnosed.
Remember when I mentioned that when we can’t break down the lactose, it goes straight to our colons and produces unwanted gas and excess water? Yup. That’s where all this pain and discomfort comes from. The increase in hydrogen, methane, and carbon dioxide gasses are likely to leave you doubled over in pain that usually centers around the belly button and lower half of the stomach.
It is important to note that stomach pain, bloating, cramping, and gas can also be caused by overeating, indigestion, medications, and other illnesses, so while it is definitely important to take note of these reactions after eating dairy, make sure you visit your doctor to confirm the true cause of these dairy sensitivity symptoms.
Often, those with a dairy allergy mistake their symptoms for lactose intolerance. While it is possible (and pretty likely) that they can occur together, symptoms for a dairy allergy include the following: stomach pain, nausea, diarrhea, skin rash/hives, swelling of lips and throat, vomiting, fainting, low blood pressure, and trouble breathing.
Unlike lactose intolerance, milk allergies can be extremely serious and potentially life-threatening. That being said, it is critical to visit your doctor to determine the true cause of your dairy sensitivity symptoms to receive an accurate diagnosis. The severity of symptoms varies from person to person, so watching what you eat and taking note of how your own body reacts is important.
Testing options and dairy alternatives
When making a visit to your doctor to uncover your diagnosis, there are several testing options you have the option to undergo to get to the root of your problems. Here are some of the most common:
Hydrogen breath test
To test for lactose intolerance, this specific procedure requires you to drink a liquid containing a lot of lactose. Afterward, it measures the hydrogen levels in your breath. High levels of hydrogen suggest lactose intolerance, but they could also indicate other digestive problems or issues that could require additional testing.
Blood tests can be used to diagnose both lactose intolerance and dairy allergies. This is the most common way to test for allergies, measuring the amount of immunoglobulin E (IgE) in the blood. IgE refers to the antibodies in the blood that respond to milk proteins, and it's developed when your body is introduced to a substance to which it is responsive to. Measuring your blood sugar levels after consuming lactose can also test for lactose intolerance; if your blood sugar levels are unaffected, this usually indicates lactose intolerance due to the inability to break down the lactose.
Cutting out dairy
Doctors can also simply suggest trying an elimination diet. Completely banishing dairy from your diet for a minimum of two weeks can help to see if your symptoms alleviate. After two weeks, you can slowly reintroduce dairy into your diet to see if the symptoms *magically* appear again! While this diet is extremely helpful in terms of easing dairy sensitivity symptoms, it is still beneficial to get an official diagnosis from your doctor for peace of mind.
Milk is one of eight allergens that require specific product labeling under the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 because it's such a common allergy. This law ensures that all packaged food products sold in the US (that contain milk) explicitly indicate the presence of milk on the label.
Fortunately, it is 2022! Dairy substitutes and alternatives now adorn grocery store shelves everywhere you look. There are too many milk substitutes to keep track of, including but not limited to, dairy-free cheeses, oat milk chocolates, dairy-free ice creams, and many, many more. Having a dairy sensitivity is more common than you think, so if you notice some persistent pains or other undesirable pains, try tracking your diet and noting how your body reacts to the foods you consume.
Also, don’t be afraid to try out some dairy alternatives regardless of whether or not you have symptoms. 2022 may just be the year you go dairy-free!
Written by Morgan Taylor