3 Surprising Signs of A Dairy Sensitivity

By Shelby Olson, MS, LN
October 8, 2019

article_healthyeating_dairyproducts.jpgDairy sensitivities are becoming more and more common these days. How would you know if you might have a dairy sensitivity? I have identified three signs to look for, based on research and observations from clinical practice.

1. How dairy products affect acne

Simply put, acne is inflammation of the skin. Dairy products have inflammatory components that are linked to an increased production of a hormone called Insulin-Like Growth Factor 1, which can lead to clogged pores that become inflamed and painful—both on the face and the body. The protein casein in dairy can also cause an inflammatory response and acne. That means that eating yogurt or drinking milk could cause some people to experience more breakouts.

In addition, both dairy and high-glycemic foods (like cereal or donuts) appear to overstimulate the sebaceous glands. So you can see that having a bowl of cereal and milk for breakfast is a recipe for more acne. Pizza is another food that could create acne for teens or adults.

2. How dairy products can create digestive problems

One of the most dramatic health changes I’ve witnessed in clinical practice was a young mom with a dairy sensitivity who was desperate for help with her digestion (she drove four hours to meet in person for her first appointment!).

She was experiencing gas, painful bloating, and intermittent bouts of fecal incontinence. It was getting to the point that she was fearful of riding in the car with her husband and being out in public with her kids because she was not sure if she would make it to the bathroom in time. During her initial consultation, we put together a dairy-free meal plan that helped get her symptoms under control in just three days. In our follow-up conversations, she said that any time she accidentally ate something with cheese or drank cow’s milk her symptoms would come roaring back for a few days.

For clients with IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), the milk sugar (lactose) found in dairy can increase digestive problems like bloating and gas. According to the National Institutes of Health, “if individuals with lactose intolerance consume lactose-containing dairy products, they may experience abdominal pain, bloating, flatulence, nausea, and diarrhea beginning 30 minutes to two hours later.”

3. How dairy products can lead to sinus issues

Personally, I’ve found that when I over-indulge in dairy products like cheese or yogurt, my nose will start to drip, which often develops into a sinus headache. Dr. Andrew Weil says, “casein, a protein found in dairy products, can increase mucus production and further irritate the immune system.”  Dr. Weil suggests taking a closer look at what you are eating to support your immune system.

Although dairy is cited as one of the top five inflammatory foods, we know each person responds differently to dairy. If you experience any of the signs of dairy sensitivity mentioned above, I recommend that you avoid all dairy products for 1-2 weeks and see how your symptoms change. If you reintroduce cheese, yogurt, or other milk products only to feel your sinus symptoms return, it may be time to follow a dairy-free nutrition plan. I created one below to help you get started.

Dairy-Free Meal Plan

chickensalad.jpgBreakfast: 3 oz turkey breakfast sausage + ½ c. strawberries + 1 c. sugar snap peas + ½ avocado

Lunch: Chicken Salad Supreme over mixed greens

Snack: hard-boiled egg + sliced apple & celery sticks + 2 TBSP almond butter

Dinner: Hamburger Soup + a few crackers with guacamole dip

As you can see, dairy can create unwelcome symptoms for many reasons, which could be a response to the protein casein, or to the milk sugar lactose. If you are lactose intolerant, you might be able to eat butter, heavy cream, or other high-fat dairy sources that naturally have very little lactose. Remember that your symptoms—like acne, bloating and gas, and sinus problems—are a way that your body communicates with you. Listen to your body; don’t let a whisper become a scream for change. If you suspect you have a dairy sensitivity and are not sure where to start, I would encourage you to set up an individual consultation with one of our nutritionists.



  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3481796/                                                     
  2. Suuberg, Alessandra, Increasing Support for a Dairy-Acne Link: IGF-1, mTORC1, FoxO1, and Dietary Aggravation of Acne Vulgaris (June 16, 2017). Available at SSRN:https://ssrn.com/abstract=2987864 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2987864
  3. https://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/condition/lactose-intolerance 
  4. https://www.drweil.com/health-wellness/body-mind-spirit/colds-flu/banishing-sinus-infection-misery/

About the author

Shelby is a licensed nutritionist at Nutritional Weight & Wellness. Shelby grew up in the kitchen, surrounded by her mother's good food and a love for feeding others. After finding out she was gluten sensitive in her early 20's and paired with the stress and anxiety of college, Shelby was motivated to learn about nutrition. After feeding her body with real foods not only did her wavering moods and low energy improve, but her hormonal acne and rashes cleared up as well. Shelby is a licensed nutritionist through the Minnesota Board of Nutrition and Dietetics. She received her B.S. in Kinesiology & Health, specializing in exercise science from Iowa State University. Most recently she completed her M.S. in Applied Clinical Nutrition from New York Chiropractic College.

View all posts by Shelby Olson, MS, LN


Are any of these symptoms the same in toddlers? :)
October 10, 2019 at 9:18 am


Yes these symptoms would be the same for a toddler, a dairy sensitivity can show up many different ways for different people and children. As for acne, especially for young children, dairy sensitivity can show up as lots of different types of skin issues as well.

I checked about all of these symptoms, which is why I need to avoid dairy now, which sucks. I know there are alternatives, but I do love my ice cream with milk. This article, https://www.ez.insure/landing/2020/06/is-dairy-free-the-way-to-be/ provided some great info and alternatives which makes it not seem so bad. It's a great read. Thoughts? What is your fave non-dairy icecream?
January 24, 2021 at 3:56 pm


Removing dairy from the diet can help relieve many common symptoms related to digestion, sinuses, skin problems, and more! So many people feel better by avoiding dairy that non-dairy alternatives are huge on the market these days! The trouble with many of these products lies in the ingredients. For example, non-dairy ice cream is still full of sugar. And many of the non-dairy milks and yogurts include gums for an appealing consistency, but also may cause digestive upset.

My advice is to stick with whole foods by making your own nut milk, for example, with no additives, and choosing these dairy-free products on special occasions.

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