How giving up dairy has affected fibromyalgia and chronic Lyme symptoms

By Donna Gregory Burch.

I’ve always said I will never starve as long as I have two things in my house: peanut butter and cheddar cheese. These have been dietary mainstays since I was a kid because they both have protein, they’re easy to grab and eat without any food prep, they’re comforting (to me, at least) and they just taste good!

Unfortunately, my body has grown to hate both of them since I developed fibromyalgia and chronic Lyme. I gave up my beloved Skippy peanut butter last year after I became nauseous whenever I ate it.

But I held onto cheese for dear life until I started to suspect that it, too, was causing my symptoms to flare. My hunch was confirmed when I tested positive for a casein sensitivity. My doctor advised me to forgo all dairy, except products from goats and sheep.

Since my diet is already super limited (no gluten, soy, processed sugar, fast food, soda, etc.), I ignored her advice for months until my body forced me to take action. Last month, with a sad heart, I downed a big chunk of cheddar cheese and a cup of soft serve from my favorite ice cream shop, and then committed to 30 days of no dairy.

Here’s what I learned from my 30-day experiment.

Lesson #1: Dairy is addictive

Over the years, I’ve read articles about how dairy is addictive, but I never really believed it until I cut cheese out of my life. My withdrawal symptoms reminded me of all those times in my 30s when I had tried to quit smoking. Day 3 was always the hardest because that’s when my body really went into mega withdrawal, and my willpower would start to fade.

It was the same when I gave up cheese. On days 3-5, I was so grumpy I fantasized about smacking random soccer moms in Target. When my hubby would arrive home from work, I had to warn him not to talk to me because I might start throwing things at him. I felt like I could chew through roofing nails!

Thankfully, these feelings of anger and anxiety were short-lived. Once I got through the first week of my 30-day experiment, I didn’t have them anymore.

Lesson #2: Dairy was definitely irritating my gut

This lesson was the most obvious. From day 1, I had less bloating, gas and digestive discomfort. For the most part, my tummy troubles disappeared during my month of being dairy free. Huge win!

Lesson #3: Dairy was triggering my histamine response

The biggest reason I finally gave up dairy is that I’ve been dealing with a runny nose, watery eyes, excess mucous and facial flushing for the past 6 months. I was taking over-the-counter allergy medications to reduce my body’s histamine response and constantly toting a tissue around in my pocket.

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I started to notice I needed to blow my nose and wipe my eyes a lot more after I ate moderate amounts of dairy. When I researched this, I learned cheese and some other dairy products are high histamine foods and can trigger the symptoms I was having.

Since giving up dairy, I have seen a reduction in my histamine reactions, but it wasn’t as great as I had hoped. I still have a tissue in my pocket; I just don’t use it as often.

Obviously there are still some offending foods in my diet, so my journey of figuring that out continues.

Lesson #4: Always read food labels

I didn’t realize how many foods contain dairy until I was avoiding it. For example, I didn’t know my favorite brand of gluten-free crackers contains dairy. During another shopping trip, I was going to buy some cauliflower rice from the frozen food section, and you guessed it, it had dairy.

Reading food labels is a requirement when going dairy free. Thankfully, most food manufacturers list food allergens at the end of their ingredient lists, so it’s not too hard to quickly spot dairy-containing foods. It’s just frustrating that there are so many of them!

Lesson #5: I can’t ignore my dairy sensitivity anymore

Last night, I ate cheese for the first time since my 30-day experiment started. An hour after eating, I was nauseous. It took me another two hours to realize my nausea was likely a reaction to the cheese I’d eaten with dinner.

I have this same reaction when I eat gluten, so now dairy not only makes my tummy hurt and my nose run, but I feel sick when I eat it, too. Big sigh.

What I didn’t learn

I had expected giving up dairy would reduce my fibro/Lyme pain by lowering inflammation in my body, but I didn’t notice any change in symptoms other than reduced gastrointestinal and histamine issues.

However, I was going through a major flare-up of a herniated disc in my back throughout April. That caused an increase in my pain in general. It’s possible I didn’t see an improvement due to my back problem.

I’m having surgery on my herniated disc soon, so I’m still hopeful going dairy free may reduce my chronic pain.

What’s next?

I’ve decided to continue the no-dairy experiment. I will treat dairy like I do gluten and the other 5,000+ foods that I avoid. I’ll stay away from it 95% of the time, and only eat it when I’m dining out or for special occasions.

I’m sad I won’t be able to nosh on cheese sticks or sprinkle parmesan on my marinara sauce. It sucks I’ll have to watch my hubby eat ice cream every night and won’t be able to steal a few spoonfuls from his bowl.

But my journey of healing Lyme and fibromyalgia is more important than any particular food group. I have to do what I have to do in order to get better even if that means sacrificing cheese and peanut butter. Maybe one day my body will stop warring with my food, and I’ll be able to enjoy a big, ooey-gooey slice of pizza again. Fingers crossed!

Donna Gregory Burch was diagnosed with fibromyalgia in 2014 after several years of unexplained pain, fatigue and other symptoms. She was later diagnosed with chronic Lyme disease. Donna covers news, treatments, research and practical tips for living better with fibromyalgia and Lyme on her blog, You can also find her on Facebook and Twitter. Donna is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared online and in newspapers and magazines throughout Virginia, Delaware and Pennsylvania. She lives in Delaware with her husband and their many fur babies.


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