What is dairy allergy and is it affecting you?

Intolerance to dairy products is seemingly on the rise with more and more people electing to cut sources of dairy from their diet due to adverse reactions. Sufferers can experience mild to severe digestive problems after consuming foods containing milk, cheese or their by-products. So what causes the problem and how can you identify if you have a dairy allergy.

Dairy allergy vs lactose intolerance?

The terms milk or dairy allergy and lactose intolerance are often used interchangeably however they are very different and distinct conditions. A milk or dairy allergy is an actual food allergy caused by the body having an abnormal, allergic reaction to the protein in milk. The immune system essentially rejects all dairy products, so when dairy is consumed, serious allergic reactions rapidly appear which can manifest as skin rashes, stomach cramps or pain, wheezing, or in severe cases a potentially fatal anaphylactic reaction. Having an allergy to dairy foods means that sufferers must always read labels on packaged foods and avoid foods that have any dairy, including the ingredients casein, whey, lactulose, lactalbumin, and ghee.

Lactose intolerance does not involve the immune system, and is caused by an entirely different disorder. Lactose is the milk sugar component present in dairy foods that is broken down by the enzyme lactase, found in the small intestine. Being lactose intolerant means that the body has a reduced ability to digest or break down these milk sugars due to having insufficient amounts of lactase in the gut. So when lactose moves through the large intestine having not been properly digested, the sugars ferment, resulting in symptoms that can include abdominal pain or discomfort, bloating, gas and diarrhoea. Symptoms typically appear between half an hour and two hours of consuming the dairy product.

Lactose intolerance is more common, takes longer to develop, and can occur at any time of life. The condition generally increases with age and is therefore quite common in the elderly.

The cause of lactose intolerance can be attributed largely to genetics. Your genetic make-up can predetermine that you have less lactase than that of the average person. Other causes can include having a bout of gastroenteritis or having a parasitic infection, where your intestines can be stripped of lactase temporarily resulting in reactions to dairy foods. A lack of iron in the diet can also impede the digestive process resulting in adverse reactions.

Dairy allergy testing and diagnosis

If you believe you have a dairy allergy or intolerance it’s best to speak to your doctor, naturopath or preferred health care provider for testing and proper diagnosis. Unnecessarily removing dairy completely from your diet can be detrimental to your health as dairy products are a rich source of nutrients including calcium, vitamin B12, riboflavin, magnesium and high-quality protein in addition to other important nutrients.
Testing is a fairly simple process and there are several options available:

  • Hydrogen breath test – When lactose is not digested and broken down more hydrogen gas is produced in your breath. These hydrogen levels can be tested after drinking a beverage high in lactose.
  • Stool acidity test – Levels of acid in the stool increase when lactose is undigested which can be tested with a simple stool sample.
  • Food allergy test – An allergist can test the skin or take a blood sample for laboratory allergy testing.
  • Elimination diet – All foods containing lactose are removed from the diet to see if symptoms improve or disappear. If symptoms reoccur once dairy foods are reintroduced, lactose intolerance is generally the most likely cause.
  • likely cause.
  • Milk trial – Simply changing to a lactose-free milk like almond milk as opposed to cow’s milk to see if symptoms improve.

Management of lactose intolerance

Here are some useful tips:

  • Butter and cream as well as fresh cheeses like cottage cheese and ricotta have low levels of lactose so are generally well tolerated when consumed in small portions.
  • Hard and mature cheese like cheddar, Swiss and edam are also usually well tolerated and fantastic options for those that suffer with lactose intolerance.
  • Drinking full fat milk in small amounts is a better option than reduced fat milks as the fats slow the movement of the milk through the intestine, allowing more time for the lactase enzymes to break down the
  • sugars.
  • Due to increasing demand, there is now a huge range of dairy free products readily available at the local supermarket. Alternatives to cow’s milk are plentiful with options like Oat, soy, rice and almond milk.
  • If you are going to consume dairy products, do so over the course of the day with a combination of other foods so that you’re not getting a large dose of lactose all at once.
  • Be aware of your body and what it can tolerate – everyone is different.