Lactose intolerance vs. dairy allergies – what’s the difference?

Woman drinking milkLactose intolerance and dairy allergies – what’s the difference?

At Health & Wellness Australia & Auckland (HWA), we see many people with sensitivities to dairy. Many people also often confuse dairy/milk allergies with true (and quite rare) lactose intolerance. So this week we sat down with one of our leading naturopaths, Simone Tischler, to help set the matters straight.


What’s the difference between a dairy allergy and lactose intolerance?

‘That’s a great question! But before we explore the differences between the two, it’s important to first understand the difference between an allergy and an intolerance. Allergies are an overreaction of the immune system to a particular substance, whereas intolerances do not involve the immune system.

Dairy or milk allergy is a food allergy, which means the immune system goes into fight mode when it’s exposed to a specific milk protein – usually casein but sometimes also whey proteins. Symptoms can range from mild to severe in different people, and can manifest as rashes, hives, itching, post-natal depression, sinus, coughing, wheezing, plus a host of digestive problems.

If you’re lactose intolerant on the other hand, you have a deficiency in the production of lactase, which is the enzyme that breaks down the dominant sugar found in dairy products, lactose. People with lactose intolerance may not be able to digest dairy products without experiencing symptoms such as nausea, bloating, cramping, gas and diarrhoea. The amount of dairy that lactose intolerant people can handle varies – some can’t touch it at all but others can learn their threshold amount.’


So if they’re both caused by dairy products, can’t we just cut dairy out altogether?

‘It’s always best to get a proper diagnosis from a health care professional before cutting out a food group. Food allergies and intolerances can present with similar symptoms, and some symptoms may also be common to a number of other illnesses. Self-diagnosis should be avoided, as you risk cutting out certain foods that are safe for you to consume and are actually beneficial to your health and wellbeing.

Most clients we treat in the clinic simply have a sensitivity or allergy to dairy. But if they do not respond to treatment as expected, we’ll recommend that they get tested for lactose intolerance. True lactose intolerance is rare, but can be determined by a doctor through a lactose intolerance test (blood test), hydrogen breath test, or stool acidity test.’


Can you get calcium without dairy?

‘Absolutely! There are a number of calcium-rich food sources, which don’t contain a drop of milk. Try dark leafy green vegetables like spinach, kale and broccoli. Fish, Brazil nuts, almonds, some seeds and calcium-fortified foods (like certain cereals, breads and tofu) are also a good source. If you can’t change your diet to include these foods, you can always try supplements, which can slow bone loss and reduce the risk of fracture (particularly in older women). Reducing your intake of soft drinks, caffeine and alcohol, and quitting smoking may also help because all of these things can reduce calcium absorption in the body.’


Can you treat sensitivities to dairy or lactose intolerance?

‘At HWA we can use a technique called muscle testing or kinesiology to help identify people’s sensitivities to milk and dairy. Following testing, we’ll work to reduce symptoms using a natural allergy treatment called Positive Association Technique (we call it PAT for short), which is a holistic therapy that:

  • draws on acupressure and kinesiology techniques
  • aims to retrain your body, and
  • may reduce your reactions to the allergens that may be contributing to your symptoms.

PAT can’t help with lactose intolerance because it’s caused by an enzyme deficiency. But working with a Naturopath can still help people get their symptoms under control. For instance, we can work on healing the gut lining by addressing leaky gut. We can also work on improving gastric acid levels by prescribing hydrochloric acid, which helps balance stomach acid. Prescribing medicinal herbs (like gentian, lemon balm and meadowsweet), digestive enzymes and correcting low levels of vitamins B1, B3, B6 and zinc may also help people with the digestion of more difficult dairy proteins.’ 

Simone Tischler has 20 years of clinical experience as a Naturopath, Homeopath and Herbalist, with a particular interest in how digestive disorders, food sensitivities and nutritional deficiencies affect children’s health as well as stress and mood disorders such as anxiety and depression.

This message is intended to provide general information only. PAT cannot cure allergies – it is intended to decrease reactions and help manage allergy-related symptoms. It is not intended to raise unrealistic expectations. For more information, contact Health & Wellness Australia or speak to your GP.

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