The foods you eat can make you healthy, so it makes sense they can also make you sick. Traditional doctors might not ask about your diet during office visits, but it still matters. Many people find that eating specific foods, such as dairy, worsen their chronic pain conditions.

Even though dairy is often lauded as a dietary must-have to build strong bones, it causes more harm than good for some chronic pain symptoms.

Staying away from dairy can even alleviate chronic pain in some patients.

People in the U.S. consider drinking milk during adulthood normal, but the continued ability to digest the liquid past childhood required an evolutionary adaptation, according to the European Journal of Human Genetics. The journal calls this continued ability lactase persistence, and says humans developed the ability when they began milking domesticated animals. 

This explains why a broad swath of people can’t properly digest milk. One Cornell University study found that 60% of adults worldwide were lactose intolerant, including the entire country of Zambia. Anywhere from 30 to 50 million people in the U.S. are lactose intolerant.

If you can’t digest milk, you’re not alone.

One of the major causes of chronic pain related to milk happens when people can’t digest lactose, which is the main type of sugar found in milk. Digesting lactose requires the presence of a specific enzyme, called lactase, in the digestive tract. Lactase processes lactose by breaking it into separate, smaller parts — glucose and galactose — that the bloodstream easily absorbs.

Without this enzyme, the body can’t break down and digest lactose. Undigested lactose can lead to a host of health problems, including abdominal pain, gas, or diarrhea. 

Patients with conditions including Crohn’s disease and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) are also unable to digest lactose, and eating dairy products can exacerbate related chronic pain. About 25% of patients with IBS are also lactose intolerant, according to the journal Therapeutic Advances in Gastroenterology.

Dairy protein may also worsen pain related to arthritis, according to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. Because the protein is to blame, switching from whole milk to skim won’t help you. To achieve maximum impact, cut out dairy entirely.

Give your body time to acclimate after eliminating your dairy intake. Any improvement will take several weeks to become noticeable. Always discuss any drastic diet changes with your doctor beforehand. 

Does dairy make your pain worse?

Image by liz west via Flickr

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