Dairy and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)

When you have inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) knowing what foods and drink affect your symptoms can be a bit of a minefield.

Some people with IBD have reported that dairy can cause a negative effect on their symptoms. Here we take a look at some of the reasons why that may be to help you make your own decision about whether it may be having an effect on your symptoms.

What are dairy products?

Dairy products are foods made from animal milk. They include milk, cheese, butter, whey, cream and yogurt.

Animals which are milked for human consumption include cows, water buffaloes, goats, sheep, yaks, horses, camels, domestic buffaloes, and other mammals.


Problems with dairy

Some people suffer from problems when they consume dairy. These can include:

  • Milk or dairy allergy. In a milk or dairy allergy consuming even a small amount could trigger symptoms which can include hives, wheezing, vomiting, diarrhoea, skin rash. Some people suffer anaphylaxis (impaired breathing and shock which can be life-threatening)
  • Lactose intolerance. Lactose is a type of sugar found in dairy products which people can be intolerant too. Symptoms, which usually occur within a few hours of consuming dairy or lactose include flatulence, diarrhoea, bloatedness and stomach cramps. Some people with lactose intolerance are able to consume a small amount of foods containing lactose
  • Sensitivity to a protein in milk called casein. If you are sensitive to casein you may experience similar symptoms to people who are lactose intolerant

It is only in recent times that humans have started consuming animal milk and there are many parts of the world (mostly outside of the westernised world) that do not consume animal milk at all. Human adults in areas where animal milk is consumed have evolved to produce the enzyme lactase which allows us to break down the milk sugar lactose. Relatively speaking this is a very recent evolution and some people may not have evolved as much as others in being able to consume it.

Dairy and IBD

Many people with IBD report that their symptoms become worse after consuming dairy products. A study1 showed that in UC patients the frequency of lactose intolerance was 28.6%, and among Crohn’s disease patients 35.3% were considered intolerant

The exact reasons for this are not known.

If you experience symptoms after consuming dairy it could be because you are lactose or casein allergic or sensitive.

It is also thought that some people with IBD (particularly those with Crohn’s disease affecting the small bowel) have a disruption in production of lactase (which is needed to break down lactose), particularly when they are having a flare. This disruption can be temporary or permanent.

If you think dairy is causing you problems you should speak to your doctor or dietician. If you are advised to stop eating dairy then you need to ensure you are getting calcium (which dairy is rich in) from other sources. Learn more about calcium and some of the food sources.

Some companies, such as Healthpath* (this is an affiliate link), provide home food sensitivity testing.

*Please note this is an affiliate link which means if you buy from the company we may receive a commission. You will pay the same price as you normally would and any money earned will be used to support IBDrelief's work.


  1. C. Menezes, R. Rocha, F. Coqueiro, M. Lopes, P. Nunes, L. Sales, C. Factum, N. Almeida, G. Santana, B. César da Silva,Universidade Federal da Bahia, Nutrição, Salvador, Brazil, Universidade Federal da Bahia, Gastroenterologia, Salvador, Brazil. Lactose intolerance in inflammatory bowel disease patients. https://www.ecco-ibd.eu/index.php/publications/congress-abstract-s/abstracts-2013/item/p205-lactose-intolerance-in-inflammatory-bowel-disease-patients.html

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