My love-hate relationship with dairy products

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I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with dairy products. I love, generally speaking, how they taste. I also like the fact that dairy products (e.g. cream, cheese) are relatively rich in protein and fat, and (importantly) not so rich in carbohydrate. Their nutritional profile is, therefore, kinda in line with ‘primal’ foods such as meat and eggs that, on the whole, are ‘right’ for us from a nutritional perspective.

But on the other hand, I know from experience dairy products can sometimes trigger food sensitivity reactions that can manifest in a variety of ways. I found this out initially first hand. More-or-less lifelong eczema disappeared in my mid-20s when I took dairy products out of my diet. When I put dairy back in, the eczema came back. Out again, and away went the eczema once more.

Now, I know there will be some who will claim this is not a particularly scientific way of diagnosing dairy sensitivity. But then again, there’s nothing very scientific about stating “When someone punches me hard in the face it hurts” (but it’s true). Also, call me old-fashioned, but I do think there’s tremendous value in listening to one’s body, and (as a doctor) listening to what people tell me about their bodies. If we don’t, my experience is it’s not good for ourselves or those we might be attempting to help. For an example of this, see here.

When I started to use more nutritional therapy in my clinical practice, I became even more convinced of the role of dairy products in certain symptoms or conditions. I honestly have lost count of the number of people who have been cured of their eczema, asthma, sinus congestion, mucus/catarrh or whatever on elimination of dairy products.

In natural medicine, it is sometimes thought that individuals can get quite wedded to the foods that they are sensitive too. So, someone who is dairy sensitive might is often very keen on these foods, and might even crave, say, milk and cheese.

A couple of weeks ago I was giving a presentation and was talking about coffee (I’m a relative fan) when a gentleman in the audience asked about lattes (milky coffee). Look there’s nothing particularly scientific about this but I have noticed over the years that individuals who drink big milky coffees at least once a day usually have a dairy issue. I mentioned this association to him, and also mentioned how this may manifest (including sinus issues). This man responded “Actually, I do have persistent sinus problems.”

But the story does not end there. The event I was talking at was followed by a dinner, and I ended up sitting next to this man during the meal. After the main course and pudding, the cheese board came round. He took a selection and started eating it, while at the same time talking to me. As he progressed through his cheese course he became noticeably more congested and ended up having to blow his nose.

I remember a similar thing happening over a dinner which was attended, by chance, with an old tutor of mine from my medical school days. After he asked what I did, he enquired as to whether there was something he could recommend for his chronically bunged up sinuses. I suggested he might try a trial without dairy. He seemed keen to give it a go. However, he was even keener to try this approach after the pudding: half way through a bowl of ice cream he became noticeably congested, and repeatedly had to clear the phlegm from his throat.

Now, not everyone is dairy sensitive, but my time in practice has convinced me that it’s common enough for it to require more widespread recognition.

If someone is dairy sensitive, it’s really one or both of two dietary elements they are likely to be reacting to: lactose (a sugar) or dairy proteins such as casein. Lactose intolerance (an inability to digest lactose) tends to cause digestive symptoms such as bloating, wind and diarrhoea. It is probably protein-specific sensitivity that is responsible for all the other stuff including asthma, eczema and ENT symptoms.

Not all dairy products, in my experience, have the same capacity to generate problems from a food sensitivity perspective.

For example, raw (non-pasteurised) milk products generally seem to be very well tolerated, while pasteurised products are much more commonly an issue. Part of the explanation for this may lie in the fact that pasteurization can change the protein molecules in dairy products in a way that makes them harder to digest, and will therefore make them more likely to trigger problems.

Also, in practice I find that yoghurt is better tolerated than milk. Studies show that the bacteria deployed in the fermentation process that converts milk into yoghurt aid the digestion of milk proteins [1]. The pre-digestion of protein by bacteria helps to explain why, compared to milk, yoghurt is less likely to trigger unwanted reactions.

An added benefit to be had from yoghurt is that some strains of bacteria used in the making of yoghurt have lactose-digesting ability, and this is reflected in the fact that yoghurt contains less lactose than milk. As a result, those who struggle to digest lactose generally find they tolerate yoghurt better than the milk from which it is derived.

In practice, foods such as cheese and ice cream seem to have roughly the same potential as milk to induce food sensitivity reactions. Butter, on the other hand, is generally very well tolerated indeed, and this may have something to do with the fact that it is exceedingly low in the protein and lactose elements that are usually at the root of food sensitivity reactions.

Another common finding is that individuals who react to cow’s milk-based products, do not react as badly, and may not react at all, to products made from dairy products from other animals such as goats and sheep. Why this may be is not known for sure. However, it has been suggested that milk from these animals is, compared to cow’s milk, more similar to human milk, thereby making it easier to digest and more appropriate for our consumption. Also, there is a school of thought which says that the earlier a food is introduced into the diet, and more of it that is eaten, the more likely we are to become sensitive to it. While cow’s products usually are consumed in quantity from early on in life, this is generally much less true for goat and sheep products.

I’ve seen many individuals shift from cow’s products to goat’s or sheep’s products and do much better for it. In children, for instance, just this shift is often enough to clear up persistent ENT problems including glue ear and recurrent sore throats/tonsillitis.

A bit of trial and error is sometimes required here, but it’s often worth it. I, for example, have worked out over time that I can consume butter and plain yoghurt (of any form) and goat’s products with no problems. However, cow’s milk and cheese is a problem for me, if consumed in significant quantities. Now I know that, I can adjust my diet accordingly. And if, for whatever reason, I decide to choose the cheese platter, then at least I know why I’m later full of mucus and have the beginnings of eczema back again the following day.


1. Beshkova DM, et al. Production of amino acids by yoghurt bacteria. Biotechnol Prog 1998;14:963-965

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