Dairy Allergies and Lactose Intolerance
We are often told about the advantages of consuming dairy products. Milk and milk products are touted as being responsible for maintaining healthy bones and for being a necessary component of the diet of growing children. But for some, the consumption of dairy can be quite the opposite of beneficial, resulting instead in gas pains, bloating, diarrhea or worse.
And, to make matters worse, figuring out which foods contain dairy and which ones don’t (especially when it comes to processed foods) is not as easy as you might think, making dairy allergies and intolerances even more difficult to detect.
What Causes Dairy Allergies and Intolerances?
Although we probably think of lactose from milk as being the main cause of dairy allergies, casein is also a common, although slightly less talked about, dairy allergen. The problem is that both of these substances are included in a variety of foods, besides just milk and cheese, usually for added flavoring or emulsification. Here are just a few of the foods in which casein and lactose can be found:
- coffee whiteners
- potato chips
- breath mints
- protein bars and powders
- processed meats
- salad dressings
- baby formula
- dessert toppings
Additionally, dairy by-products may be found in certain over the counter and prescription drugs including vitamins, supplements, lotions, soaps and cosmetics.
What is the Difference Between a Dairy Allergy and a Dairy Intolerance?
For starters, we need to distinguish between allergies and intolerances, which are two very distinct physiological reactions.
Allergies are brought on by the ingestion of normally harmless substances that the body recognizes as foreign (such as casein or lactose). This in turn causes the release of antibodies to fight off their presence in the body. Consequently, the body will release chemical triggers such as histamines to alert the body to the invading matter, which can result in inflammation. Allergies can range in severity, and at their most intense can result in anaphylactic shock.
Food intolerances, on the other hand, do not involve the immune system. Intolerances result when an enzyme needed to digest certain substances does not exist in the body. Those suffering from lactose intolerance, for example, do not have sufficient amounts of the enzyme lactase, which is responsible for breaking lactose down in the small intestine. Without the necessary amount of lactase, the lactose gets sent straight into the large intestine, causing a range of digestive problems such as flatulence, bloating and stomach cramps.
With some 30% of Americans suffering from lactose intolerance, it is the most common food intolerance in the country. And unlike dairy allergies, which many children grow out of, lactose intolerance only worsens in age. This is because, as we get older, the amount of lactase our body produces naturally decreases.
How Would I Know if I had a Dairy Allergy or Intolerance?
If you experience any of the following symptoms after ingesting dairy you should consult your doctor about the possibility of a dairy sensitivity.
Symptoms of dairy intolerance include:
- cramping of the stomach
- bloating and/or gas
In addition to these symptoms, dairy allergies may result in:
- skin rash or hives
- nasal congestion
- blood in urine or stools
- rectal itching or fissures
- anaphylactic shock
The most reliable testing method for sensitivity to dairy is the elimination diet. This involves the avoidance of all casein or lactose-containing foods and processed foods as well as all dairy products for two weeks.
After the two-week period you should begin re-introducing certain dairy foods. Some health experts suggest that you begin with small servings of organic skim or low-fat cow’s milk for two days. If after the two days you begin to notice any of the above symptoms, you most likely have a sensitivity to dairy. If, however, you experience no adverse symptoms after the two days you may continue re-introducing dairy products with the same two-day rule until you are confident you are tolerating them well.
Alternatively, some common medically supervised testing methods are:
The lactose intolerance test: This blood test measures blood sugar levels which, under normal circumstances, should rise after the ingestion of lactose. The lack of rising blood glucose levels is indicative of undigested lactose, and thus, lactose intolerance.
The hydrogen breath test: This test accounts for hydrogen levels in the breath resulting from undigested lactose in the colon.
The stool acidity test: Like the hydrogen breath test, this test analyses levels of acidity in the stool brought on by undigested lactose. This test is usually given as a substitute for the hydrogen breath test for young children and infants.
Can Dairy Allergies and Intolerances be Treated?
Treatment options range depending on the severity of the allergy or intolerance. Those with a mild intolerance to lactose, for example, may still be able to consume limited amounts of dairy products with the use of a digestive aid, such as a lactase enzyme.
Simple avoidance, however, is generally the most reliable form of treatment. At the same time, since dairy is our primary source of calcium intake, those taking on a dairy-free diet must be sure to substitute alternative sources of calcium so as not to become susceptible to deficiencies.
For dairy allergies, an antihistamine may be prescribed, although patients should be alerted to possible side effects. Another, slightly more controversial treatment alternative involves desensitizing the patient to the allergen through a series of injections.
Natural treatment options, on the other hand, will most likely involve strengthening the adrenal glands through stress reduction and herbal supplements such as licorice root and Siberian ginseng.