Milk, does it do you good? (Part 1)

Milk. For some people, it’s just one more item on their grocery list. For others, it’s a heated “food politics” issue. I, myself, stand somewhere in the middle. Should we drink milk? Let me start with the easy part:

If you are allergic to milk, you should NOT drink it! Having a true milk allergy means that your body sees one or both of the proteins in milk (casein and whey) as foreign invaders. Your immune system develops antibodies designed to launch a major attack against these proteins. If you drink milk, you may experience symptoms like runny nose, rashes, hives, nausea, diarrhea, difficulty breathing and maybe even anaphylactic shock…which can lead to death. No, milk will certainly not do your body good.

Now, I said “true milk allergy.” This is to distinguish an allergy to milk protein from an intolerance to lactose, the natural sugar found in milk. It’s important to understand the difference. A milk allergy is an immune system problem, whereas lactose intolerance is a digestive system problem. If you are lactose intolerant, it is because your body does not produce enough of the enzyme lactase, which we need to be able to digest lactose. If you are lactase-deficient, and you consume lactose, you don’t have to worry about anaphylactic shock, but you may end up gassy, bloated and uncomfortable. Yay. Depending on how much lactose you consume, and how little lactase you produce, your symptoms may be mild, or severe.

So…if you are lactose intolerant and you really want to keep eating dairy, you have a few options for avoiding discomfort.

  1. You can stick with yogurt and hard cheeses, which have lower levels of lactose. This works for some people, but not for others. 
  2. You can choose milk that has lactase added. These are labeled as lactose-free or reduced-lactose.
  3. You can take lactase enzymes directly in tablet or drop form. These are over-the-counter, so you don’t need a prescription. 

Here’s an interesting scenario: Let’s say you drank milk and ate other dairy products as a kid with no problem, but then stopped for a number of years (for whatever reason). Then, you decided you missed it. So you drink some milk, or enjoy some ice cream, or eat some cottage cheese. Not long after, your stomach hurts and you have enough gas to make you avoid human contact. Did you become lactose intolerant?

Yes and no. During the years you didn’t ingest any milk products, your body probably started making less lactase, since it knew you weren’t using it. Your body is pretty efficient, and it has untold numbers of enzymes it needs to make (without enzymes, all the chemical reactions that make your body run won’t happen fast enough, and you’ll die). Why should it waste time and resources making an enzyme that’s not being used? But stopping production of an enzyme is not the same as losing the ability to make that enzyme. Your first re-encounters with dairy might not be comfortable, but eventually your body may say “Hey, I need to start making lactase again.” Many people get through phases like this by slowly building their tolerance to dairy with small servings at first. You can also use some of the tips for the lactose intolerant (above).

So what if you don’t have a milk allergy, and you are not lactose intolerant? Should you drink milk? That’s totally up to you, but not all milk is created equal. I’ll talk about that tomorrow.

Note: If you drink milk then have any symptoms that suggest a milk allergy or intolerance to lactose, and you have never discussed this with your doctor…what are you waiting for?