You’re madly in love with cheese, but your body? Not so much. In fact, every time you chow down on your fave fromage, the subsequent bloating and cramps make you wonder if your ass is about to explode. If strange symptoms are the status quo when you nosh on dairy, you could be dealing with lactose intolerance—an icky side effect that strikes when your small intestine doesn’t produce enough of an enzyme (lactase) that helps your body digest milk sugar (lactose).
“Lactose intolerance is extremely common and can go undiagnosed for a long period of time,” says gastroenterologist Niket Sonpal, M.D. Here are a few subtle hints your body might be throwing your way:
1. You Experience a Smorgasbord of Symptoms
“Common signs of lactose intolerance include bloating, gas, diarrhea, pain, rumbling or gurgling in the lower abdomen, and foul-smelling flatulence,” says Gina Sam, M.D., director of the Gastrointestinal Motility Center at Mount Sinai Hospital. Less common symptoms include foamy stool and nausea—with or without vomiting—which may indicate that something else is brewing besides lactose intolerance, says Sonpal, who recommends checking in with your doc to evaluate the situation.
2. The Symptoms Strike Fairly Quickly
Most lactose intolerant people can handle a certain level of lactose in their diets without their bod retaliating, but exactly how much is a completely individual thing, says Sam. Once that line has been crossed, the severity of symptoms typically increases with how much lactose is consumed and can strike anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours after you ingest it.
3. You Belong to a Specific Ethnic Group
There are two kinds of lactose intolerance—primary and secondary, says Sonpal. Primary is the most common and involves a dramatic drop in your lactase reserve (that’s unfortunately irreplaceable), making milk products a nightmare to digest by adulthood. Primary lactose intolerance is connected to your genetic makeup and is very common among people with African, Asian, or Hispanic ancestry.
4. You’ve Had Tummy Troubles Recently
Secondary lactose intolerance, on the other hand, is a temporary sensitivity to lactose that’s triggered by an underlying intestinal issue—such as a life-ruining case of the flu, gastroenteritis, or Crohn’s disease, says Sonpal. Treating the underlying condition gives your intestines a chance to heal, and the ability to digest lactose is eventually regained, he adds. (For example, after a bout of food poisoning, it’s recommended you lay off dairy for a week or two.)
5. Certain Dairy Products Hit You Harder Than Others
While it might seem essential to ditch dairy altogether—especially if it triggers an apocalypse in your digestive tract—not all lactose intolerance is created equal, says Sonpal. You may be able to figure out how much lactose you can consume before discomfort sets in by experimenting with a variety of dairy products, all of which contain different amounts of lactose, and tracking how you feel post-binge.
Making a few simple swaps or additions to your diet may make all the difference. For example, goat’s milk contains about 10 percent less lactose than cow’s milk. (We’re fans of LaLoo’s Goat Milk Ice Cream, if dessert is your jam.) And hard cheeses like Swiss or cheddar have smaller amounts of lactose and typically don’t cause symptoms. Meanwhile, cultured milk products (such as yogurt) may be easier on your gut, since the bacteria used in the culturing process naturally produces the enzymes necessary to better digest lactose.
If you think you might be lactose intolerant and just can’t even, your doc can confirm your suspicions by completing a super-easy lactose intolerance test. Two hours after drinking a liquid that’s lactose-infused, a blood test is given to measure the amount of glucose in your bloodstream. If your glucose levels don’t budge, it means your bod isn’t digesting the lactose-filled drink properly.
Long story short: “The only way to avoid the symptoms associated with lactose intolerance is to avoid these products or take pills that contain lactase to help you digest lactose, which are available at any pharmacy,” says Sam. Similarly, you can switch to lactose-free dairy products or products that contain the added lactase enzyme, such as Lactaid milk. We also highly recommend the soy latte at Starbucks.