Scary Dairy
02 August 2016

I have to be honest. At first I didn’t believe it. “I’m allergic to dairy products” wasn’t something I’d heard patients say before. But around 10 years ago I began to come across it more and more. Allergies weren’t high on the agenda when I was a medical student. People who were allergic to one food or another were considered a bit eccentric. As a result food allergies weren’t at the forefront of my mind when dealing with patients. As we say in medicine, “if you don’t think about you won’t diagnose it”. And so I began to think about it.

Susan brought her 7 year old son to see me. She was becoming despondent. His eczema was uncontrollable, despite using all the lotions and potions available to her. He itched terribly, his sleep was disturbed and he sometimes scratched till his skin bled. Additionally he suffered from recurrent head colds, ear infections, and asthma attacks. My colleagues had tried every treatment available. So I had a thought. Might he be allergic to dairy products, milk, butter, cheese and cream? Would a diet free from all of them help? We agreed it was worth a try. Susan set out to put her son on a dairy free diet for one month to see how he reacted. The result was dramatic. Within a few weeks the eczema which had plagued him constantly for years was almost entirely gone. Mum brought him back to see me one month later. Not only had his skin improved but Susan, faced with a child who was unhappy with his new dietary regime had offered to follow the same dairy free diet to support him. “I can’t believe how I feel” she said. “I’m not as tired as I always was, my tummy pain and bloating have gone and I feel so much more energetic”. Susan thought she might have been suffering the effects of a dairy allergy for years without knowing it. It can often be hereditary.

Now, there is scientific support for this. Recent developments in immunology allow doctors to test for antibodies which can show if an individual is indeed allergic. Many of us carry a gene which makes us vulnerable. But not everyone who reacts to dairy products is allergic. Some have a “hypersensitivity” to dairy, resulting in the same symptoms, albeit perhaps to a lesser degree. An allergy to dairy though quite common in Asian people, is increasingly being recognized in Europeans too. But before you start putting two and two together to make five, and deciding you might be allergic to dairy too, consider this. Dairy products are a valuable source of calcium. Calcium, which helps the development of healthy strong bones, and prevents the development of osteoporosis, thinning of the bones, in later life. And if you cut out dairy you have to make sure you’re getting calcium from alternative foods. Natural foods containing lots of calcium apart from dairy products include oatmeal, spinach, beans, oranges, fish, broccoli and whole meal bread. Commonly available milk substitutes include oat-based and rice based “milk” products.

A diet free from all dairy is hard to accomplish and takes a bit of work, especially at the beginning. But if it makes you feel well it will be worth it. Susan came back again a few months later. Yes she was still “dairy-free”. Yes she was still feeling well. But one thing had changed. She’d lost more than a stone in weight. Avoiding full-fat milk, butters, cheese and cream meant she had dramatically reduced her daily calorie intake. As she said, not being able to enjoy some of her favourite foods had some added benefits.