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Breaking Lactose: How Dairy Affects Your Gut and Going Dairy-Free


February 21, 2014 | Published by


glass of milk

Many of the gastrointestinal problems caused by milk consumption are related to the digestion of lactose. When a person with a lactose intolerance or dairy allergy consumes milk or other dairy products, some or all of the lactose remains undigested and ferments in the large intestine, resulting in gas, bloating and abdominal cramping. Symptoms range greatly, and are generally felt within 2 hours of consumption.

What is lactose, exactly? It’s the primary sugar found in milk, made of one molecule of glucose and one molecule of galactose. Lactase, a digestive enzyme, is required to properly digest whole milk. Many people are incapable of manufacturing lactase. This is common in people of Asian descent. Lactose intolerance can also occur as a result of a damaging gastrointestinal disorder, such as celiac disease, irritable bowel syndrome or ulcerative colitis.

Milk: To Drink, or Not to Drink

In my practice I see health problems related to milk consumption almost daily. I also know of many people who consume milk and dairy products on a regular basis and tolerate then quite well. Milk has the reputation as being the ‘Darth Vader’ of dairy products, but still has nutritional benefits … for those who can tolerate it.

Most people can tolerate small to moderate amounts of cheese and butter, but start noticing digestive problems once milk is added. Notice how I said small to moderate amounts? Cheese, butter, cream and chocolate are highly concentrated sources of dairy sugars and are consumed in amounts far too large for the average person’s digestive and immune systems to cope.

Lactose Intolerance vs. Dairy Allergy

It is rare for me to encounter a patient with true lactose intolerance. What I see much more are folks with a dairy (casein) allergy. I have also had patients diagnosed elsewhere with a lactose intolerance, only to find out via blood testing that they have an allergy, not intolerance. Another common misdiagnosis I see is irritable bowel syndrome. While it is possible to see people with a milk allergy and a bowel problem, I always suspect lactose intolerance when bloating, flatulence, cramping pains and diarrhea are experienced shortly after consuming milk.

Tips for Going Dairy-Free

-Avoid all milk and dairy products

An obvious but difficult one. Need a milk fix? Try rice milk instead. Soy milk can be a problem for many individuals, and goat’s milk, though not as likely, may be as well. Try to avoid any dairy products for several months, then re-introduce small amounts and see what happens. And don’t forget: chocolate is actually a type of dairy product.

-Make sure to get your calcium and magnesium

If you avoid dairy altogether, calcium supplementation may be necessary. Balance supplementation with good food sources such as dried figs, broccoli, almonds, sardines, molasses, tofu, sesame seeds, etc.

-Check your medications

Lactose is commonly used as a filler in pharmaceutical drugs. Check with your physician or pharmacist if you have any concerns with medication(s) you’re taking.

-Read food labels carefully
Avoid any foods containing listed dairy products or milk solids.

-Choose low-lactose cheeses for a fix

Parmesan and other low-lactose cheeses are some of the easiest dairy products to tolerate. Again, please consume in moderation.

-Add some Lactobacillus to your diet

Friendly bacteria may facilitate the digestion of dietary lactose and allow lactase-deficient individuals to avoid some of the more unpleasant effects associated with lactase deficiency. Lactobacillus is found in many fermented food products such as yogurt and sauerkraut.

dr eric bakkerAbout the Author: Eric Bakker B.H.Sc. (Comp.Med), N.D, R.Hom. is a highly experienced naturopathic physician who has been in clinical practice for 25 years. Eric is passionate about improving people’s lives through proven wellness and lifestyle principles, natural medicine practice as well as public and professional practitioner education. Eric specialises in candida yeast infections, as well as adrenal fatigue, and thyroid disorders. Dr. Bakker has written one of the most comprehensive books on yeast infections called Candida Crusher. Website:  You can complete his online survey to determine if you have a yeast infection here, or link through to his many YouTube videos:  Dr. Bakker’s Blog:


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