Dairy, especially cow milk, is one of the most common allergy or intolerance foods. If you have a true allergy, your body is reacting to the protein component of milk. If you have an intolerance or sensitivity, your ability to digest lactose, a sugar component of milk, may be lacking or impaired.
Human breast milk contains lactose. To break it down and digest it, babies produce the enzyme lactase. When a baby is weaned, the lactase production gene is often turned off and production stops. From then on, instead of lactose being digested properly, it becomes
food for gut bacteria, which produce gas as a byproduct. This can cause symptoms including abdominal pain, bloating, and diarrhea. A relatively new gene mutation that occurred about 10,000 years ago enables an estimated 35% of people to continue digesting lactose into adulthood. This is called lactase persistence.
Lactase is produced by cells in the small intestine. Due to many factors including our stressful modern lives and poor dietary habits, it’s common for these cells to become damaged and lose their ability to produce lactase. Then, even a person with lactase persistence can have problems digesting lactose. Luckily, with dietary and lifestyle interventions, the health and function of those cells can often be restored.
Like so many things in life and especially in the nutrition world, the answers we seek aren’t simply black and white or yes or no. So often there’s a spectrum and varying factors to consider.
Some people can’t tolerate straight milk, but cheese or yogurt is fine because they’re lower in lactose. Others do ok with a little dairy, but too much causes uncomfortable symptoms. For many people, ice cream is the thing that wrecks them. Then there’s people that do ok with some dairy, but during stressful times, they’re tipped out of balance and dairy causes problems.
Because of so many complexities, the question of “Should I avoid dairy?” really needs to be answered individually. If you don’t enjoy it, experience digestive or other symptoms after eating it, are lactose intolerant, or are allergic to it, you're probably among the individuals who should avoid it. Even if you can eat dairy without problems, it doesn’t mean you should eat it all day long every day. Like with any food, balance is key.
If it’s good quality and doesn’t cause problems for you, dairy can be a rich source of nutrients. In his travels and studies of people around the world, nutritional pioneer Weston A. Price discovered many healthy, disease free people who consumed dairy as part of their traditional whole foods diets.
If you’d like help determining if dairy is a healthy option for you personally, I’d be happy to help. You can see which virtual or local service best fits your needs here.