I’m a foodie at heart, so when my body tells me it’s time to cut a certain food from my diet, it takes a while for my brain to really pay it mind. I’ve been struggling with stomach issues and digestive problems since my sophomore year in college. It started off with gastritis and then once that cured up, my body decided it wanted to piss me off and take on Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)-constipation. That was two years ago to be exact. I did everything possible to heal my body back to health – except remove dairy.
When you live in society that glorifies foods like pizza, cheeseburgers, and mac and cheese, it’s hard to completely eliminate dairy from your diet. I started developing a slight intolerance to dairy a few years back and I haven’t eaten foods like ice cream, a glass of cow’s milk, or yogurt since. But honestly, that was the easy part. It was refraining from eating cheese that was a real bitch, especially because it was the only dairy product that wasn’t giving me any problems. Or so I thought.
It was 2015 and I had finally recovered from gastritis, an inflammation of the stomach lining that used to result in brutal stomach pains. My stomach, though still sensitive, was in much better shape. I also never had issues with my bowels. I was the kind of girl who (full disclosure) would go every single day, no matter what I ate. That was before 2015, when I started going months with awful constipation episodes. I finally saw a gastroenterologist, only to discover I was suffering from IBS-constipation, a type of irritable bowel syndrome that results in bad constipation, belly pain, and is quite common among young women.
I tried everything. I curbed my diet, I started drinking a lot more water, and I started working out more. I even cut dairy out for a few months and experienced a significant difference. But before I knew it, I was missing cheese, eating it again, feeling bloated, not going to the bathroom and experiencing symptoms all over again.
But when I couldn’t find any relief, I realized maybe it was time to eliminate cow milk from my diet all together. Though the thought of not eating cow cheese again seemed depressing, I knew it couldn’t be any worse than the uncomfortable symptoms I was now experiencing on a daily basis.
I officially eliminated all cow milk products from my diet in January 2017 and believe me when I tell you, I’ve almost cured myself from IBS–constipation. I go to the bathroom almost every single day with no straining and little discomfort.
In fact, the only times I really experience bad constipation is when I’m really stressed, not sleeping well, or are eating foods I shouldn’t be eating. Cutting out dairy has changed my life. I barely experience bloating, my stomach usually looks flat, and even my skin looks better.
“There is evidence that dairy may be a contributing factor to skin ailments like acne, it is not entirely clear, what the underlying mechanism is, but it could be due to hormones and growth factors that are part of some dairy products,” Danielle Capalino, a registered dietitian in NYC who provides nutritional counseling on digestive health explains.
She also points out that for most IBS patients, dairy intake normally results in diarrhea or loose stools. But when I explained to my personal gastroenterologist, Dr. David Berger of ProHealth Care, that my IBS constipation symptoms flare up every time I have cheese, he explained that for patients like me, dairy can sometimes have the opposite effect.
“Lactose is the component in many dairy products which causes the problem,” he explains. “It is a complex sugar made up of glucose and galactose. Lactase is the enzyme required to break lactose into these simple sugars, which are readily absorbed in the small intestine. Patients with lactose intolerance fail to produce lactase. Lactose is therefore not broken down into the small intestine, is unable to be absorbed there, and travels into the colon, where it interacts with bacteria leading to increased gas, bloating, and diarrhea.” Or in my case constipation.
“I think more physicians are aware of the difficulties in handling lactose/dairy in their IBS patients,” Dr. Berger adds. “Certainly when someone is having a flare up of their IBS, they should be admonished against ingestion of lactose containing products like milk, ice cream, cheese, particularly soft cheeses, and butter.”
What I learned from this health journey was that dairy wasn’t something I needed to consume in my diet. Also, the fact that my body isn’t able to tolerate dairy is actually quite normal. Most adults after a certain age develop some sort of intolerance to it.
“Dairy is not a necessary component to anyone’s diet, but dairy products are a way to contribute to your nutrients needs in particular calcium, so it is important to make sure that you get calcium from other food sources,” adds Capalino. “One of the best food sources of calcium are dark leafy greens like spinach, kale, collard greens, and turnip greens.”
Listen, I’ll be the first to admit that cutting out dairy – cheese in particular – wasn’t and still isn’t easy. I still miss eating pieces of gouda cheese with red wine and my occasional slice of NYC pizza. But none of it is worth my health. I’ll take a vegan slice of pizza and cashew cheese any day if it means having a healthy gut with no stomachaches and constipation pains, thank you very much.