Our ancestors have been drinking dairy for generations with no problems—but now, all of a sudden, dairy sensitivity is second only to gluten sensitivity. What happened?

Why are food allergies so common in general?

There’s a few theories.

  1. Lack of beneficial flora (probiotics) in our diets.  Probiotics are important because they feed on the waste left over after we digest our food, and produce lactic acid, which helps protect our guts against pathogens.  We used to get plenty of them by eating raw and fermented foods… but these days, our food is so processed and overheated that there are precious few good flora left over.
  2. Medicines that wipe out gut flora.  These include antibiotics, certainly, but they also include PPIs (such as omeprazole), nSAIDs (like ibuprofen), steroids (like prednisone), birth control, and many others.
  3. Genetically Modified foods? I put a question mark here because it’s not an established fact, but to me the evidence is strong enough that I avoid them and counsel my patients to do the same.  To read more on this issue, click here.
  4. Anything causing inflammation in the gut.  This can be a bout of gastroenteritis, trauma, untreated malabsorption syndromes, environmental toxicity, and even chronic stress.  If there’s inflammation in the lining of the small intestines for any reason, it sets you up to develop sensitivities to foods you could otherwise consume with no problem.

Why dairy is especially hard to digest

For those with an already sensitive gut, dairy is a very common culprit. Here are a few reasons why.

  • It’s hard to digest. “Sticky” proteins, like gluten, dairy, and eggs (those commonly used in baking) are more likely to cause issues for those without a robust gut to begin with.
  • Antibiotics and added hormones. rBGH and rBST are growth hormones given to about one in six dairy cows in the U.S. to increase milk production.  These hormones have been known to cause inflammation in the cows’ breast tissue, augmenting the need for antibiotics. Dairy cows consume about 70% of this nation’s antibiotics both for this reason, as well as to offset the unhealthy conditions in which they are maintained.  The reason this is bad news: bacteria are smart.  Antibiotics may kill off most of a given strain, but the ones that survive are the ones that are resistant, and then they reproduce… which is the reason why we’re having more and more trouble with antibiotic-resistant bacteria these days.  Additionally, the milk produced by cows treated with these hormones has a higher concentration of insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1), linked to various kinds of hormonal cancers. rBGH and rBST are banned in Australia, New Zealand, Israel, the EU and Canada… but not in the US.
  • Additives. Reduced fat or fat free milk has been processed to strip away the cream, which also removes the fat-soluble vitamins A and D. These vitamins must then be added back (which is why you should be leery of any product that says it is “enriched”. This term means that vitamins and minerals that were lost during processing were added back. But if a food needs to be enriched in the first place, it’s been processed.) Some brands of milk also contain gums like carrageenan, which may cause gut irritation. In general, any product that has been chemically processed is more likely to trigger allergic responses than the original, untampered product.

Lactose vs Casein

The two allergens in milk likely to provoke a reaction are the sugar (lactose) and the protein (casein). The former is found primarily in softer milk products, such as milk and ice cream, while the latter is found primarily in harder milk products, such as hard cheeses, yogurt, and kefir. (The reason is because these products are fermented, and the fermentation process requires sugar. The more aged the cheese, yogurt, or kefir, the less lactose is present.)

Are You Sensitive to Dairy?

If you suspect you are sensitive to either lactose or casein, eliminate it for 2 weeks, and then eat a lot of it for three days. If you’re sensitive to it, you’ll know right away. However, this will only work if dairy is your only sensitivity. If there are more, the picture will be muddier, at which point you would have to do either a full elimination diet, or a blood test.

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