Twenty years of cow's milk intolerance... cured?

in health •  20 days ago

It was a warm day in July, and I had just completed a circuit of Meall nan Tarmachan and the Tarmachan Ridge near the small town of Killin in the Scottish Highlands.

I was desperate for a slice of cake! But it was 5.30pm and there were no cafés open – just a small restaurant, and the only cakes they had were scones with jam and cream.

For the past 20 years I'd had an intolerance to cow's milk that gave me such horrendous digestive trouble, I would never touch anything that contained more than a tiny amount of milk, cream or cheese.

But that day I was so tired, and so determined to have the treat I had been dreaming about on the hill, that I was willing to suffer the consequences.

I ordered a scone with jam and cream, and I ate every little bit.

Astonishingly, there were no ill effects. Usually – since 1997 anyway – if I indulged myself with any food containing cow's milk to that extent, I would experience a sudden feeling of fatigue, sometimes so strong that I would have to go and lie down. That would soon be interrupted by terrible bloating and gas, followed by diarrhoea and multiple urgent toilet trips.

In the late 1990s, when this all started, I didn't even know what was causing it initially. I had a multitude of hospital tests, and was eventually diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome and told that I would have to take medication for life (I didn't take any of it).

The whole experience made me feel so depressed that I seriously contemplated whether life was worth living at one point. This was before I worked out what was causing the urgent toilet trips. I never knew when they were going to strike, so I felt like a prisoner in my home.

Without wanting to go into too much unpleasant detail, these were urgent toilet trips.

Conventional medicine offered no answers

Luckily I eventually worked out that dairy was causing my problems. Initally I gave up all dairy products, including eggs. Over the next year or so, I started to realise that I could eat eggs, goat's milk products and some sheep's milk yogurt (but not too much) without triggering digestive flare-ups.

Discovering dairy-free ice cream was a joy! Source

It made me more inventive with food. I was forced to start looking at the labels on food packaging, and I often shopped in health food stores, sometimes buying vegan food. I didn't turn vegan, but I did begin to appreciate the inventiveness of vegan cooking.

I think it made me much more health-conscious. I have a lot of respect for my doctor, but when I told her I thought I had a cow's milk intolerance, she clearly thought I was talking nonsense. I had to look outside conventional medicine for clues to what was causing my condition, and whether it could be cured.

I now suspect that many people who were diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) in the 1990s, as I was, may have actually been suffering from a cow's milk intolerance. I remember reading about people wearing wrist bands to alert others that they may need urgent access to a toilet. Before I realised that cow's milk was triggering my problems, I thought I might need to wear one of those wrist bands.

NOT a faddy diet!

At that time it was quite fashionable to avoid dairy, even for people who didn't have an intolerance to it – which did nothing for the condition's credibility. It was absolutely infuriating when people thought I was avoiding milk products due to a fashionable fad or a trendy diet. They would look sceptical and ask me to describe my symptoms – but when I did, they would look disgusted and quickly walk away!

Dining out can be embarrassing when you have a food intolerance. Source

So I would try to keep it as low-key as possible – not very easy to do when you're out at a restaurant and the waiter comes over and loudly announces "WHO'S HAVING THE LACTO-FREE MEAL?" The next half hour would be spent fielding questions about why I was avoiding cow's milk.

My former job as Editor of a trade magazine often involved meeting people in the dairy industry over dinner. This could involve a lot of embarrassing situations, especially when dairy farmers were present! Actually I found them very understanding.

The last time I remember having a cow's milk-induced digestive crisis was on my birthday in February 2016. My family took me out to a small French bistro that I was keen to visit. It specialised in fondue cooking (using melted cheese), but I had assumed that they would also offer some less cheesy alternatives.

Unfortunately it was all fondue or nothing. I decided just to have some wine, but after a couple of glasses I relaxed and couldn't resist helping myself to some of the delicious fondue.

I regretted it after we got home, as I spent most of that night feeling ill and rushing to the loo.

Why are food intolerances on the increase?

I've had to educate myself about my condition, but I haven't been acting alone. There are so many people who are intolerant to cow's milk – and the numbers have been increasing significantly, as they have been for people with all kinds of food intolerances and allergies.

I have an idea about why this is happening.

Not long after the fondue episode, I spotted a book on display in a bookstore window with the title Gut. Apparently it was a best-seller.

I had to buy it! I wanted to find out more about my gut, and why it had been behaving like this for 20 years!

Gut, by Giulia Enders, was a thoroughly entertaining read, and for the first time, I actually felt I was starting to learn something about why cow's milk might be giving me this horrible reaction. It introduced me to the fascinating world of the microbiome, the bacterial flora that live within us. The balance of those microbes plays an essential part in maintaining our health.

I started devouring literature about the microbiome and the bacteria that inhabit the gut. I read books on the subject, scientific papers online, and even watched lectures on YouTube about the emerging science of the microbiome and gut flora.


After reading Professor Martin Blaser's book The Missing Microbes, I began to strongly suspect that my cow's milk intolerance may have been triggered by taking several courses of antibiotics in 1996 and early '97, when I contracted Giardia during a trip to Nepal. The antibiotics may have destroyed some of the important "friendly bacteria" in my gut, along with the pathogens.

Antibiotics defeat friendly bacteria, as well as pathogenic ones. Source

Blaser's daughter Genia had a very similar experience to mine, contracting Giardia after extensive overseas travel, and having it treated with four courses of the antibiotic metronidazole. Sadly for Genia, she subsequently developed an allergic reaction to gluten that was so severe, coeliac disease was suspected.

Blaser writes that metronidazole (Flagyl is one brand name for this medication), can have major effects on the bacteria of the gut. Blaser also mentions research that found that people who had recently developed coeliac disease were about 40 percent more likely to have been prescribed antibiotics in the preceding months than those who did not develop it.

Although I thankfully have neither coeliac disease or a gluten allergy, I suspect that the courses of metronidazole I took in 1997 to treat Giardia may have disrupted my gut bacteria, possibly wiping out those enzymes needed to digest milk.

Scientific research into the microbiome is at a very early stage. We are only just starting to learn about the enormous effect of our internal microbes to our health. The term "microbiome" was only coined in 2001, and there are still debates raging over the accuracy of the term. But it seems likely that the recent widespread increase in antibiotic use is linked to the increase in food intolerances and allergies.

I am not advising anyone to stop taking antibiotics if they need them.

I have taken a couple of courses of antibiotics recently, but only when I thought it was absolutely necessary, and while taking them I also made sure to eat a lot of prebiotic and probiotic food, including high-fibre foods, live goat's yogurt and home-cured sauerkraut.



Still seeking answers

There are a lot of "I think"s, "I suspect"s and "apparently"s in this saga. Although there is a lot more scientific information about cow's milk intolerances around these days, much of it is still very cutting edge and often inconclusive. I still often feel as if I'm doing detective work in my attempt to get closer to the truth.

When I realised I could happily eat cream cakes without any digestive distress, I thought my cow's milk intolerance had been cured. But sadly, this is not the case. It turns out that the issue is even more complex and fascinating than I had realised.

I will explain why in my next post.



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Very interesting. I stopped drinking as much cow's milk quite a while ago. I am not intolerant to it, but it is much easier to drink almond milk now. My wife doesn't drink regular milk so this way we only have to buy one kind. Now that the price has come down so much on almond milk it isn't as huge of a deal. Great post with some really awesome information! I feel bad that you haven't been able to get a definitive answer to your questions though.


I'm glad you enjoyed my post @bozz. It's funny - every time I think I have a definitive answer or solution to my cow's milk intolerance, something happens to make me realise I still have a lot to learn! But it is great that there are so many alternatives to dairy these days.


For sure. I used to think I had some kind of lactose intolerance. I am now starting to realize it is more an adverse reaction to excessive carbs as opposed to something with lactose.

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I'm lucky I have none of these problems when it comes to food, but my daughter cant eat nuts. She ended up in hospital once when small. It seems more commonplace now than when I was a kid.

This is a very long informative post, I wish there were more like this.


Thanks @slobberchops! I kept thinking it was getting too long and I should cut it down, but it just kind of flowed.
Nut allergies are really serious. That must be very distressing for your daughter. With an intolerance the symptoms are unpleasant, but you wouldn't be hospitalised. One of my cousins developed a nut allergy when she was in her 20s.

What a post! Wow! I can relate to some parts of your story. My Lyme disease made switch to a gluten /sugar/yeast free diet and at occasions dairy free as well. At first, I felt there was nothing left for me to eat, as all the goodies were taken out. I had to educate myself and find ways to make food palatable using new ingredients. Yes, I totally agree that dining out can be embarrassing and annoying when you have dietary restrictions.


Thanks @lymepoet. Did you stick with all those dietary restrictions, or add things back when you were able to rule them out as trigger-foods?
I definitely found that having to avoid certain foods made me look at food and health in a new way, and I would cook for myself more instead of eating processed food, so there were some positives.


I was on that diet for almost four years. I learnt how to avoid triggers and navigate my way through the world of processed foods. ;0)

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Antibiotics surely can mess with your system and screw up your digestive balance.
My sister who is four years younger than me could testify to this as she has gone thru it as well. She actually had to have a "poop" transplant in order to finally get her arse and shit under control. (please excuse my French there.)
But it worked and she hasn't had any problems since then, she also now stays away from as much medicine as she can. I think the doctors termed her condition as having C-difficle and if you google it they google lady will say it comes from not washing your hands properly but her doctors said it was the antibiotics that were the cause of her condition.


I've read a lot about C-diff, because for some reason it responds to "poop" transplants particularly well, which is good because it's one of these terrible new antibiotic-resistant conditions that no one seems to really understand. I'm glad your sister was cured of it.

I am lactose intolerant thanks to my Asian heritage and I had proven in many instances that it makes me feel sick when I eat dairy products. @natubat
Anyway I have learned that taking lactase with make us tolerate and digest dairy products which is good but of course with an extra expense because we have to buy Lactase and it isn't that cheap for me.


That's interesting @cryptopie, because I've tried taking lactase supplements and they did not improve my symptoms one bit. I think it's because I'm intolerant to casein, not lactose. It's such a complex issue! But also a fascinating one. Thanks for your comment.

Thanks for writing this! After suffering for the past year, I have only very recently realized that my horrible symptoms were triggered by milk. It was so interesting to read what you have found in your research


Thanks Melinda. I'm glad my post was helpful. It's been a long learning curve for me over the past two decades, and there's definitely more information about cow's milk intolerance these days.
When my reactions to cow's milk first started, it took me at least six months to work out what was causing the symptoms. It was so worrying, wondering why my body was reacting in this way, and worrying that I might have some terrible disease. It was quite a relief to find out that I could stop the horrible reactions by avoiding cow's milk.


That's exactly where I am right now, relieved at realizing that I don't have a horrible disease and that I can control it with my diet. I've still got a lot of learning left to do and your posts were very helpful. Thank you. I bookmarked them so that I could easily find them again when I had questions.