Many adults suffer with intolerance to milk and milk products but remain a little uncertain about the symptoms, how they are caused and how to live a healthy life with a food intolerance. I have a milk intolerance and it is hoped that by discussing my own symptoms in this article it will provide help and insight into milk intolerance, how to identify it and what next for sufferers.


A food intolerance is a digestive reaction to certain foods that would normally be considered to be not a problem. Indeed, for many people they are not problematic. However, for those unfortunate souls that do suffer with an intolerance it can be very debilitating until that individual’s own personal and unique circumstances are fully understood.

An intolerance to milk is very often characterised by a feeling of discomfort in the gut, bloating and nausea. These sensations can begin to develop some 30 minutes to 2 hours after the trigger food has been eaten. Sometimes headaches, vomiting and diarrhoea may follow. The actual symptoms can last for several hours and it may even be the next day before the gut can pass through the offending food.

Some foods that contain milk will give only a small amount of discomfort, something that can be tolerated even though it may make the sufferer a little uncomfortable for a short while but an hour or two later that sensation has passed. Another food will have a profound reaction, quite debilitating. Enough that the sufferer must stop what they are doing while they cope with the problem. If diarrhoea or vomiting begin then this can be very embarrassing too.


There is a very great difference between a food intolerance and a food allergy.  An intolerance as we have just explained is a digestive tract problem most often characterised by bloating, nausea, and diarrhoea.

An allergy is a reaction to certain foods that causes the body’s immune response system, the MAST cells, to produce chemicals in the body, such as histamine, and to release these into the blood stream and cause much more severe reactions, sometimes fatally so. Symptoms of a food allergy may include tingling sensations in the mouth, since this is the point of entry of the food into the body. The affected person may then complain of a swelling in the throat and stomach discomfort. As the body releases various chemicals into the blood stream, shortness of breath can become an issue, red blotches on the skin or hives can develop. With severe reactions the affected person can become confused and begin to lose consciousness. In these severe cases, immediate medical assistance is an absolute priority as death may quickly follow.


It is believed that some sort of traumatic event or illness can cause an intolerance to develop. The delicate balance within the digestive tract is disturbed and what was once an enjoyable food is now creating a problem. It can be a hereditary condition if one or both parents are sufferers. Young children may “grow out” of certain intolerances that they have had from a very young age as their bodies and bodily functions develop.  Adults who develop problems may find that the issue stays with them for the rest of their adult life.

If I use my own intolerance as an example for the rest of this article it will perhaps help you to understand some of the symptoms and how difficult it can be sometimes to recognise the problem. Not only that, by describing the actions I have taken to live with this it may help others to achieve a dietary balance much sooner than I did.

Back in 2001 I had a Campylobacter infection, food poisoning, from a takeaway chicken curry. I was severely ill for three weeks, I had to provide samples for laboratory analysis, the doctor visited every day for the first week and in three weeks I lost nearly 20kg, over 40 pounds. I needed to lose weight but this was not the way to do it.

Now here is the part that was difficult to understand at first. As I had lost so much weight, as I was feeling weak most of the time (understandable after three weeks of hardly eating) I decided to bulk myself up with dietary supplements that are predominantly milk products with essential vitamins and other additives. But this did not help, I was still feeling unwell. Gradually my health did improve and over many months I returned to a near normal diet, but I kept having relapses, I also began to dislike the taste of milk in coffee, preferring to drink it black.  I still made no connection. I could eat chicken no problem, and all kinds of meat but for some unknown reason I would suddenly become ill with stomach cramps, dizziness, bloating and occasionally diarrhoea. There were two instances when my work colleagues had to take me home after becoming ill at work.

It was not until over a year later that cause and effect began to drop into place. If I was feeling a little low in energy I would have a food supplement drink and sure enough about forty minutes later I began to feel unwell. For me, this forty minute time lag has stayed with me if I eat the wrong things. Others will notice a different time response.

I received little help from the family doctor, he just brushed the issue off with a casual remark of growing out of it soon. I chose to pay privately for hair samples to be analysed by a specialist clinic and received a detailed diagnosis and plan of action.

It transpired that the massive doses of anti-biotics that I had been given to combat the Campylobacter bacteria had also killed off all the good bacteria in my gut. My body could no longer convert lactose into other products and the lactose was fermenting inside my gut with the results listed above. Nausea, sweating, severe abdominal pain, diarrhoea, dizziness and so on.

Each time I had had a food supplement drink to help my body, I was actually making things worse. I was filling my body with the very things that were making me ill.


So what was the outcome of my hair sample tests? The main culprit was identified as milk, and it was cow’s milk in particular that was the main problem. There were other foods that were suggested as possible minor problems but cow’s milk was the definite no-no for me.

Without further ado I stopped taking milk in any form. Not just milk drinks, but rice pudding, custard and all the obvious sources of milk. But still I would be unwell on occasions; times when I knew that I had not had milk, or so I thought. The next stage was to look at the ingredients lists of foods, food products, drinks, everything, BEFORE consuming them. It came as very great surprise to find that milk, milk products and whey products are ingredients in so many everyday foods. Everybody knows about cheese and yoghurts, butter and margarine, but there are milk products in gravy, soup, curries and a host of other products, even some wines would you believe.


There are many expert laboratories that test for intolerances.  A search on the internet will reveal those in your locality. In my case, it was well worth the small investment of money and the small investment of time. As well as an answer to the question – what intolerance do I have; most professional testers will provide you with a list of foods to avoid, foods to be careful of and often a health plan to improve your gut health.

Once you know more precisely the problems that you have, you are in a much better position to look after your health and enjoy eating again.


It took me a while to realise what was wrong with me, why I regularly felt bad. It was only by making notes, both mental and written, of what I was eating that a light began to shine on the problem foods. I do encourage you to keep a food diary, nothing very complicated. Just list the meals AND snacks that you have eaten, plus the drinks you have consumed. It can be 30 minutes to two hours before symptoms begin to show and even, with me, the day after sometimes.

It can be the quantity of that food that makes a difference. Although I am intolerant to cow’s milk, I can eat goat milk products in small quantities. I especially love goat’s cheese and unfortunately for me, greed often takes over and I will eat a whole packet of goat’s cheese over the course of a day. We all know the result, stomach discomfort and bloating, not as bad as with cow’s milk but uncomfortable none the less. The trick, I learnt, was to eat a small piece of goat’s cheese every few days, in other words leave a gap between consuming portions. For me, the gut can tolerate a small amount infrequently; a small quantity separated by one or two days works fine for me.

Whatever it is, record it in your notebook. After a few days of note-taking, it will make sense.


Stay alert to what you are eating. Pay attention to the symptoms that you might develop. Eventually a pattern will emerge. And also stay vigilant about the foods that you did not eat, why did you choose not to order pizza? Why did you have a burger without mayo? Your mind will sometimes reject foods that it has come to realise are bad for you. It sounds strange but I now find the smell of milk quite repulsive. The thought of cream cakes makes me feel a little ill. My brain is auto-rejecting the troublesome foods.


When eating out, vigilance is even more important. Although many cafes, bars and restaurants are becoming more aware of food intolerances, there are some staff that work in these places that have little or no concept of the problem. It is not from a refusal to understand the implications, they simply have never encountered intolerances before and cannot grasp the effects it may have on the individual. Training of staff helps with their understanding but they must also apply what they have learnt. 

To them, it may not matter if there is cream in this dessert, or the mushrooms have been cooked in dairy butter. The concept is completely alien to them. If in doubt, always ask. A good restaurant or a local fast food outlet with caring staff will always be prepared to go and check the ingredients for you. Many restaurants, nowadays, will especially prepare food for you that is dairy free, or in fact free of any allergens, if you make them aware of it.


And we must apply the same care and thought when family cooking. It helps if everyone eats the same food, i.e. without milk. There is then no danger of eating the wrong food. I cook food with milk in and food without milk and to ensure separation is maintained, my wife’s plate is always on the left and mine is always on the right. Often the plates are a different colour, again visual clues to keeping them separate. It may seem a task the first few times that you keep things apart, but after a short while it becomes perfectly natural and ordinary to do. Make sure you check all the ingredients lists, eventually you will find your store cupboard only contains dairy free products. Some gravy granules contain milk, some don’t, read the label. Learn to cook with dairy free spreads instead of margarine. Check that packet rice, many contain milk powder. Learn to cook with nut milks such as almond milk, coconut milk etc. Choose recipes without milk and other allergens. Try substituting the problem foods and discover what recipes work for you. Curry without milk is just as tasty, in fact my curry recipe is on this website – see What is a Good Curry Recipe. Pizza can be made with lactose free cheese and is very, satisfying. There is no reason why a person with a food intolerance problem cannot enjoy healthy, tasty foods. In fact, I say that I better meals knowing that I have a problem than I ever did before.

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