Twenty years of cow’s milk intolerance… cured?January 31, 2019
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.
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!
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.
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.
Main photo source
All unsourced photos are author’s own.