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Intolerance to Food and Milk

Updated on September 30, 2011

Food intolerance may cause only mild discomfort, or it may be so severe that it is life threatening. Because it does not enlist the immune system in the production of antibodies, food intolerance is not a true allergy. Even so, the symptoms often mimic those produced by the immune system and may be hard to distinguish from allergies.

Metabolic Intolerance

People with metabolic intolerance lack the ability to digest specific nutrients. Lactose intolerance, the inability to digest milk sugar, is extremely common. Typical symptoms include gas, bloating, cramps, and diarrhea after drinking milk or eating milk products.

Except for a few inedible shrubs, milk is the only source of lactose. Once prehistoric humans were weaned, they never had lactose again; hence, they no longer needed lactase, the enzyme that breaks down milk sugar in the digestive tract. With evolutionary thrift, lactase was programmed to disappear as milk was phased out of a child’s diet.

Adults who can digest milk are a minority in the world population. 70% of people of African descent, for example, are partly or entirely lactose-intolerant after 3 to 4 years of age. By contrast, 90 percent of people of Northern European descent continue to produce lactase. This genetic trait probably enabled their forebears to absorb extra calcium in a dark, cold habitat where there was little sunlight available to develop vitamin D in the skin. Vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium. Transient or permanent lactose intolerance may follow a gastrointestinal illness or treatment with antibiotics or anti-inflammatory medications.

Most lactose-intolerant people can consume up to a pint of milk or 6 ounces of ice cream a day without much discomfort. They can also safely eat cultured dairy products, such as cheese and yogurt, because the bacteria used in fermentation use up most of the lactose for fuel. For people with more severe intolerance who still want milk and other dairy products, grocery stores sell lactose-reduced dairy products and pharmacies carry enzyme drops that can be added to milk and enzyme tablets that can be taken before eating dishes that contain dairy products. Mixing milk with another food dilutes the concentration of lactose. Some people heat milk, which makes it more digestible.

Do not confuse lactose intolerance with milk allergy, which is hypersensitivity to the proteins in milk and dairy products. If you are allergic to milk, consuming a lactose-reduced product will not prevent a reaction. And if you’re lactose intolerant, look for the milk sugar in a variety of products, including many medication. Always read labels carefully; milk solids are used as filler in numerous food.

Another metabolic intolerance is the inability to digest glutten, a protein in wheat, rye, and barley, which is the mark of celiac disease. Treatment requires a diet that excludes grains and any products containing glutten.

Food Additives

Sulfites can cause severe, allergy-like reactions.  Sulfites are widely used to preserve such foods as shrimp, processed potatoes, dried fruits, wines and beer.  Labels on packaged items must inform purchasers that sulfites are present, but shrimp and raw vegetables carry no such warning.

Read food labels carefully and avoid dried fruits or other sulfite-preserved foods if you believe you may be sensitive to sulfites.  People with asthma are at special risk from sulfites and should shun questionable restaurant and convenience foods.  Dipstick kits to test for sulfites can be purchased at pharmacies, but they are not 100% reliable.

Migraine Triggers

While true food allergies are rarely a cause of migraine headaches, food often triggers these headaches in sensitive people by dilating the blood vessels in the head.  The result is a pounding, usually one-sided headache.

Specific triggers vary with individuals, but tyramine is often the root cause.  Tyramine is found in aged cheeses such as cheddar and parmesan, cured and preserved meats (for example, bacon, ham, salami and hot dogs), pickled fish (including herring and mackerel), fava beans, and figs.  Phenylethylamine in chocolate is another common offender.

If you suffer from migraines, keep a diary for a month or two, noting your daily food intake as well as any migraine symptoms.  In this way, you will be able to avoid trigger foods and possibly forestall many attacks.

Other Possibilities

Methylxanthine compounds – which occur naturally in coffee, tea, soda drinks and chocolate can cause very distressing symptoms, including headaches, palpitations, panic and anxiety attacks, and vomiting.  People who experience any of these symptoms should avoid problem foods and all beverages that contain caffeine.

Individuals receiving medical treatment may experience symptoms ranging from trivial to life threatening, as a result of medication-food interactions.  A common and dangerous interaction occurs between monoamine oxidase inhibitors and foods containing tyramine.  Before taking any drug, ask your doctor or pharmacist to give you a list of foods you must avoid while taking the medication.


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