I’d been diagnosed as allergic to dairy as a child yet had no noticeable symptoms until my mid-20’s after lethargy, indigestion and skin issues arose and became chronic. I then spent years going back and forth, going from one end of the spectrum to the other, being dairy-indulgent to totally dairy-free. Wondering if dairy is helping or hurting your cause for a healthy lifestyle and happy digestive system is a warranted thing to wonder, as there is no shortage of information (and misinformation) on the topic.
First, consider that what causes unpleasant reactions from consuming dairy is a naturally occurring change in the human body between the ages of two and five. As much as 75 percent of the world’s population loses the ability to digest lactose after infancy, according to The Journal of the American Dietetic Association, so there’s no wonder why so many of us have developed unpleasant aversions to dairy-laden foods. Determining what defines ‘too much’ for you is important, but overly self-diagnosing leads to unnecessary stress.
Here are two questions to help you determine where to stand when it comes to your own dairy decisions:
1. Are you lactose intolerant or do you have a true allergy to dairy?
People who are lactose intolerant or sensitive to dairy do not digest lactose (the sugar in milk) because their body does not produce enough lactase (an enzyme in the small intestine required for breaking it down). This causes reactions like gas, bloating, constipation or digestive issues, because after dairy is consumed, the lactose is not properly broken down, passing into the large intestine not fully digested, which warrants those uncomfortable reactions. Although the occasional bout of bloating and discomfort might be tolerable, enduring them chronically isn’t. For those reasons, limiting or avoiding dairy is a good decision for many people, even without a true food allergy to it.
People with an actual allergy to dairy are allergic to the milk protein and experience adverse reactions within one to two hours, similarly to those with a food sensitivity or intolerance. The body perceives dairy as a dangerous invader, and responds with an inflammatory response by the immune system that releases extra histamine into the system. This isn’t just a matter of a lactase deficiency that those who are sensitive to dairy experience. The reactions are typically more severe and include nausea, vomiting, itchy eyes, raised welts or skin rashes, and/or swelling of the lips and throat. In this case, avoiding dairy isn’t just a matter of deterring some indigestion, but potentially hazardous health problems.
The easiest way to remember the difference between lactose intolerance and a dairy allergy is that an intolerance is an issue with digestion, while an allergy is an issue with the immune system.
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