Most Dairy Reactions Are Not Lactose Intolerance

Published date: June 28, 2012 | Modified date: April 2, 2019

Milk and Dairy Allergies are Common

Milk allergy or dairy allergy are the most common food allergies seen in our practice and cause a multitude of health problems. Dairy may be the most misunderstood food of our time. It is often assumed to be of high nutritional value and even mandatory for good health, but it can create serious health problems.

In the big picture, humans have only recently introduced cow’s milk into the diet. We didn’t even have the opportunity to regularly drink the milk of another animal until we domesticated animals. Relative to other foods that we’ve been eating for millions of years, milk was just introduced yesterday. It shouldn’t be too surprising that the immune system doesn’t always recognize it simply as a nutritious friendly substance.

Lactose Intolerance and Dairy Allergies Are Not the Same

Lactose intolerance is frequently confused with milk allergy, but the two conditions are not the same.

A dairy allergy is an immune response that results in inflammation and tissue damage. Such a response to food can be exhibited in any part of the body, therefore it can cause a wide range of problems. Food allergies also interfere with nutrient absorption, resulting in conditions such as iron deficiency anemia, osteoporosis, and fatigue.

Lactose intolerance is an enzyme deficiency, not an allergy. Lactose intolerance is defined by a person having a deficiency in the enzyme lactase. This enzyme, lactase, is needed in order to digest the sugar component in milk called lactose.

Lactose intolerance is your intestines’ inability to digest milk sugar. However, a milk allergy is a systemic immune reaction against milk proteins. Digestive symptoms of a milk allergy can be similar to symptoms of a lactose intolerance, so they can easily be mistaken. And it is also possible to have both a lactose intolerance and a milk allergy. Click here to learn more about lactose intolerance.

Many people are lactose intolerant, but millions more have an immune reaction to dairy. Unfortunately, most people don’t recognize that there is a difference between the two issues.

Dairy Allergy Is an Immune Response

A dairy allergy, like any food allergy, is capable of triggering a wide array of symptoms. Many people do not recognize that their symptoms are caused by a dairy allergy. It is often difficult to connect your symptoms with your eating habits, and there are several reasons for this.

First, unless you are paying very close attention to every single ingredient in every food that you eat, you generally aren’t aware of how often you are getting exposed to dairy. Second, your symptoms probably vary in intensity from one episode to another, or come and go. And third, allergy symptoms may show up hours or even days later, after a food is well absorbed into your system. And if you stop to think about it, you probably eat dairy every day. There isn’t any clear distinction because you’re never really ever off it. And even if you only eat something two or three times per week, you can still have a significant allergic reaction to it and trigger symptoms that will last several days. Often it’s not until you’ve avoided a food long term that you can clearly see the pattern between the cause and the effect of a food allergy.

Many infants also react negatively to dairy, which is typically the first food introduced to an infant in the form of infant formula. Dairy can cause reflux, vomiting, colic, poor development, and the inability to sleep.

Dairy Allergies Can Cause Ear Infections in Children

The inner ears are drained by the eustachian tube, which opens into the back of the throat. In young children this tube is not fully developed and is very susceptible to being blocked by inflammation. Anything that causes inflammation in the back of the throat can block the eustachian tube. Allergies are a classic cause of inflammation. Once the eustachian tube is blocked, the inner ear becomes a warm and moist breeding ground for bacteria.

Ear infections are usually treated with antibiotics. Antibiotics kill the bacteria, temporarily, but they don’t change the inflammation of the eustachian tube or the breeding ground. This is when placing a tube through the tympanic membrane is recommended. These don’t solve the inflammatory problem either, but they do get the drainage going.

The real cause of the problem is the inflammation of the eustachian tube. Usually this inflammation is caused by a food allergy, most often dairy, and children generally drink and eat a lot of dairy.

In our experience a milk allergy is by far the most common cause of ear infections. Removing dairy from the diet will usually result in complete resolution of this problem. However, occasionally further food allergy testing is required to determine the source of the inflammation.

dairy allergies and intolerance

Lactose Intolerance is Different

Most reactions to milk are mistakenly considered to be lactose intolerance. The most common lactose intolerance symptoms are:

  • Intestinal cramps or discomfort
  • Gas
  • Bloating
  • Diarrhea

Lactose intolerance symptoms are almost identical with symptoms of other chronic disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome or celiac disease. Studies show as many as 70 percent of lactose intolerant people don’t link their symptoms to consumption of milk sugar. So it’s possible you may actually have lactose intolerance instead of indigestion or irritable bowel.

Recognizing A Dairy Allergy Is Difficult

It can be difficult to determine if your symptoms are a result of a dairy allergy. Connecting a food to a symptom can sometimes be challenging.

Even when people consider that dairy may be causing their symptoms, people often mistake a dairy allergy for a lactose intolerance and never fully eliminate dairy from their diet, only lactose. Avoiding lactose only partially helps their condition or often doesn’t help at all. What they don’t realize is that even though they are avoiding lactose, they are not avoiding dairy.

The most blatant example of this is using lactose free milk. Lactose free milk is still a major dairy product. If you are drinking lactose free milk you haven’t even begun to eliminate dairy from diet, only lactose. Dairy is also a major ingredient in many other products that are considered to be lactose free.

The only sure way to determine if you have a milk allergy is to have the proper testing done to measure for different types of antibodies to dairy. (Ironically, this is not the kind of testing that your allergist will do.) Antibodies are produced by your immune system. If you have an immune reaction to milk, then you have a dairy allergy. Any form of dairy in any food product is then a trigger for you.

Many Foods Cause Dairy Allergies

Dairy includes all types of milk from a cow, all cheese, butter, half and half, yogurt, cottage cheese, ice cream, and other obvious milk products.

It also includes the proteins casein, whey, and lactalbumin which are found in many processed foods. Whey protein powder is essentially dried milk, without the lactose. Whey is not only sold as a protein powder, it is also used as an ingredient in hundreds of different food products from bread, to soup, to candy.

Low-fat and nonfat milk are just as allergenic as whole milk. And eggs? This is confusing to some people, because eggs are white, and milk is white. And they both used to be in food pyramid together. But eggs do not come from cows (at least the last time we checked), so of course they are not a dairy product.

It Is Important To Look For Hidden Dairy In Foods

The only way to avoid all sources of dairy is to read all ingredients and to find acceptable alternative products. There are now hundreds of good dairy-free foods on the market, and the list is expanding every day. Although traditionally these have typically been soy-based, there are many other options these days.

Soy, rice, almond, oat, hazelnut, and coconut milks are now widely available. Coconut, rice and soy ice creams are wonderful ice cream alternatives. Even dairy free cheese is improving.

Food Labeling Is Not Always Accurate.

One of the more common food allergy questions we get is what to make of labels that say “may contain traces of….” or “made on equipment shared with products that contain….” Unfortunately, you can’t really tell what these statements mean because the situation can vary so much from one place or product to another. And now there is finally a small study on this exact issue.

U.S. News reported on a study that has ascertained what was suspected all along, that some of these products do in fact contain a food allergen. They went on to blame smaller companies, which I think is unfortunate and probably has as much to do with volume as it does quality control. Big companies produce gigantic amounts of a product, reducing the potential for an allergen to show up in it even if it is made on shared equipment. It is simply a matter of statistical probability, but it’s still useful information.

Any time you see a qualifying statement about a product potentially containing something that you should avoid, there is a chance that you’ll get exposed to that allergen. Companies are simply covering their rear so that they can say that they told you so. Another way of looking at it is that it’s a message encouraging you to eat healthier. Because the more processed food that you eat, the more likely it is you will ingest something that you didn’t intend to ingest. Processed food simply isn’t as healthy as whole food, no matter how you slice it.

If Avoiding Dairy, Make Sure to Get Enough Calcium

Calcium is a very important dietary mineral. Calcium is used by the body for many processes, but bone formation and structural integrity are generally the most well-known.

Deficiencies in calcium can result in various disorders such as tooth decay and osteoporosis. Getting a steady supply of dietary calcium helps to prevent these and other health issues.

Different amounts of calcium are required at various stages of life for men and women. For adults between the ages of 19 and 50 the recommended calcium intake is 1,000 mg per day.

Obtaining enough calcium through the foods you eat can be a concern for those following special diets which avoid multiple food allergens, including dairy.

We have patients ask us nearly every day what sort of calcium supplement to take since they can longer eat dairy products due to an allergy. The short answer is, a supplement is probably not required.

To cover your daily recommended intake of this essential nutrient, you will likely get enough calcium from other non-dairy foods without taking a supplement

It is important to understand that calcium is present in a wide variety of foods, not just dairy products. If you cannot eat dairy products or don’t like certain foods, you are likely still getting the calcium you need from other, unsuspecting calcium-rich sources.

Non-dairy but calcium-rich foods include:

  • Seeds
  • Sardines and canned salmon
  • Beans and lentils
  • Almonds
  • Dark leafy greens like collard greens, spinach, and kale
  • Rhubarb
  • Edamame and Tofu
  • Figs

In order to get the calcium as well as many other important nutrients you need, it is important to have a varied diet. As long as your diet includes a wide variety of foods, supplements should not be necessary.

Most dairy alternatives also contain added calcium. Therefore, if you are substituting another type of milk for your cow’s milk, your may still be getting plenty of calcium. And ironically, you are probably digesting and absorbing that calcium much better than you were when you were drinking milk. In fact, studies have never shown that cow’s milk is required in order to have strong bones. It’s genius marketing by the dairy industry, not scientific fact.

There Is No Need to Suffer with IBS Symptoms

If you haven’t ever tried eliminating dairy from your diet, but suspect it may be a problem for you, you really should get tested for a dairy allergy. Your health is worth it! It is by far the most problematic food seen at our clinic and readily shows up as positive lab work with the advanced food allergy testing we use. If you suspect you may have a dairy allergy, or you experience any of the symptoms listed earlier, contact our office for information on proper testing for food allergies.