The Dairy and Inflammation Connection (+ 4 Delicious Dairy Swaps)
Dairy is one of those food groups that is very polarizing—you either love it or hate it. But, regardless of your taste (or distaste) for dairy, did you know that there’s an undeniable link between dairy and inflammation?
You may be surprised to learn that humans are the only mammal on Earth that continue to drink milk past infancy. Not only that, but we consume dairy products on a daily basis. In fact, Americans consume almost 50 billion pounds of milk each year. Yet, milk allergies account for almost 98 percent of all food allergy cases! What’s more is that it’s been linked to rashes, ear infections, and even digestive difficulties.
It’s clear we need to know more about why this is happening. So, let’s dive into why milk and other dairy products are increasingly linked to major health concerns by taking a closer look at how dairy and inflammation are connected. And in case you suspect that you have an issue with dairy, I’ll also share some incredibly delicious alternatives you may want to try instead!
The Link Between Dairy and Inflammation
People consume dairy products so frequently that they often fail to notice that these products aren’t always well-tolerated by their bodies. Small children are a great example of the dairy and inflammation connection. Children are often seen for ailments and symptoms that are written off by physicians as “normal.” These symptoms include ear and throat infections, frequent colds, severe bloating, gas, rashes, and even colic. Bouncing a baby up and down or putting them on antibiotics is a common solution, but it may not be the best way to treat these young ones.
Think about it: Babies who suffer from chronic ear infections usually begin displaying symptoms by the age of one. They’re often placed on antibiotics to fight the bug that is causing the infection, but these antibiotics also kill the flora in their stomachs, and this flora is essential for digestion and health. A child who suffers from chronic ear infections typically will experience symptoms repeatedly over a few years, with doctors failing to cure the problem. Many times, tubes are placed in the children’s ears. It usually gets to this point before frustrated parents begin to seek alternative solutions.
Inflammation, Allergens, and Intolerances at Play
When it comes to common and recurring ailments and symptoms, have you ever considered that allergens may be the root cause of the problem? To test for allergies, children are often given IgE allergy tests where they’re poked to find immediate hypersensitivity allergies. But this test fails to detect food intolerances, which are slow mediated and often contribute to the symptoms.
As we’ve discussed, the most common food allergy is milk, which accounts for 98 percent of all food allergy cases. And this allergy is often found to be the cause of chronic ear infections. In fact, studies have shown that those with dairy allergies are significantly more likely to experience recurrent ear infections. 
The common signs of a dairy allergy include colic, rashes, and severe gas and bloating. If the allergy is left undiscovered, it can lead to frequent colds, chronic ear and throat infections, and, later in life, asthma. Sometimes, there can even be a pattern: Adults who develop asthma, strep throat, frequent headaches, gallbladder issues, or diverticulitis later in life typically dealt with chronic ear infections as children.
There’s also something called a dairy intolerance, which is physiologically different from a dairy allergy, that can cause the same symptoms as an unaddressed dairy allergy.
So, what’s the difference? Well, an intolerance is a different process, but the results are much the same. With an intolerance, you can actually test negative for a dairy allergy but still experience the symptoms associated with a dairy allergy! Additional dairy intolerance symptoms include: reflux, fussiness and general irritability, constipation, random rashes, eczema, acne, and more.
But what’s the link between allergies to dairy and inflammation? Well, if you’re allergic or intolerant to dairy and consume it, your immune system will see it as a threat. When you have an acute dairy allergy, your body will release a chemical called histamine to try to expel the dairy from your system.  The release of histamines cause acute (or short-term) inflammation in your body to help bolster your immune system to fight off the “threat.”
The problem here is that when you keep exposing yourself to the threat (in this case, dairy), your body continually releases histamine or elevates your antibodies, which can cause chronic inflammation. And it’s this chronic inflammation that results in the recurrent symptoms and conditions, such ear infections, frequent colds, and even digestive issues.
How to Stop the Dairy and Inflammation Cycle
Detecting a dairy allergy or intolerance involves discussing dietary habits with your physician. If you (or your child) have been suffering from the recurrent symptoms or illnesses I mentioned above while consuming dairy on a regular basis, the most likely course of action will be to discontinue dairy products and take probiotics to restore a healthy stomach flora. Depending on the extent of the inflammation, you may also support general digestion with enzymes, bitter herbs, or apple cider vinegar. You should also ask your doctor about anti-inflammatory herbs.
Amazingly, once you or your child discontinues consuming dairy, you may see improvement in as little as two weeks!
Now, it’s worth mentioning that having a dairy allergy is different from being lactose intolerant, although lactose intolerance can also cause inflammation due to lack of breakdown of dairy products. Lactose intolerance is actually a deficiency in the enzyme used to break down dairy products, meaning it’s not an actual food allergy. Symptoms include excessive gas, bloating, diarrhea, and stomach cramps. 
Interestingly, approximately 75 percent of the world’s population is lactose intolerant, with almost 50 percent of Americans being affected.  So, what does this mean? It means the odds are pretty high that, if you’re experiencing any of the health concerns we’ve discussed, cutting out dairy will likely help you to find some relief. Why? Well, it all goes back to the point that we are the only mammal that consumes these products past infancy. And keep in mind that we consume another mammal’s dairy—not even our own! Our enzymes simply aren’t equipped for this.
Top 4 Dairy Substitutes
Now, I know that for some, cutting out dairy can be difficult. Between our consumption of milk, cheese, yogurt, butter, and the much-loved ice cream, it may seem impossible. In fact, some of my patients have just flat-out refused. And, believe it or not, I understand.
Luckily, I’ve discovered that there are actually some incredibly delicious alternatives to traditional cow’s dairy. Here are a few of my favorites that will leave you so satisfied, you won’t even miss traditional dairy products!
1. Almond milk
There are many alternative milk options out there, from rice to oat to coconut to nut-based milks. But my favorite, by far, is unsweetened almond milk. It has the closest taste to traditional milk, but without the phlegmy aftertaste. It’s great in cereal, granola, or even as a standalone drink. You can make your own, or you can buy it in any local grocery store. I like to make my own and add one or two dates and the inside of one vanilla bean to give it some extra flavor.
2. Coconut yogurt
Made with coconut milk, coconut yogurt is creamy, tangy, and absolutely delicious. I like to pair it with fresh berries to give it a naturally sweet taste. It’s also a great substitute for sour cream or as a base in mashed potatoes! Once again, you can make your own, but it’s readily available in your local grocery store so you can grab-and-go.
3. Vegan cheese
Believe it or not, vegan cheese has come a long way in recent years. Although I am not a strong proponent of processed foods—and this includes these lovely vegan cheeses— they are available and can help get you “over the hump” of cheese withdrawals.
Today, there are options made from nuts, coconut oil, soy, and even chickpeas! And they come in many varieties, such as hard, spreadable, grated, and more. Vegan cheese is becoming so popular that you can easily find options at many locations near you. Check out this list of 11 different vegan cheeses to help you decide which you might like to try first.
For my cheese fix, I make cheese sauces out of nuts, such as cashew cream sauce, nut-based sour creams, and more. In fact, you will see a lot of these options in my recipes throughout this site. Once you learn how to make them, they will become easy staples in your fridge!
Just one quick helpful note: Beware of “vegan” cheeses that still contain casein. Guess what? That’s milk! Make sure to pick alternative cheeses that are certified vegan and whole foods-based.
4. Ice cream
Ah, the one food many of my patients refuse to give up when I suggest they go dairy-free. Here’s the great news: With the rising incidents of dairy and inflammation-related health concerns, manufacturers are now offering many dairy-free ice cream options. From coconut milk to soy to almonds to banana puree, there are so many bases for ice cream that you’re almost guaranteed to find one you love.
As always, try to pick ones that aren’t full of chemicals. And make sure to keep an eye on the amount of sugar they contain. There are also dairy-free ice cream recipes to make your own, if you so desire. In fact, you can try my delicious Homemade Peach Ice Cream with Blackberries and Lavender. It’s made with rich and creamy full-fat coconut milk, making it a delicious and healthy alternative to the sugar-filled options you’ll find at the store.
- There is an undisputed link between dairy and inflammation.
- Humans are the only mammal on that continue to drink milk past infancy, with many of us consuming dairy products on a daily basis.
- Unfortunately, milk allergies account for almost 98 percent of all food allergy cases.
- Consistent exposure to allergens often lead to chronic inflammation, which has been linked to many common illnesses, from ear infections to recurrent colds to digestive difficulties.
- Specifically, dairy allergies have been directly linked to increased incidents of ear infections in young children.
- There are many delicious dairy-free alternatives for many of your favorite foods, from milk to cheese to ice cream!
- Finding the root cause of a health problem, which may be as simple as eliminating dairy from the diet due to the connection between dairy and inflammation, could save a child from unnecessary surgery, illnesses, and even complications later in life.