Lactose and Gluten Intolerances

Within milk, there are two compounds to which people can have intolerances or allergies: casein and lactose. While individuals can have allergies or intolerances to casein, typically people that have problems with lactose are intolerant. An allergy is a response to a compound that originates in the body’s immune system. An intolerance occurs when undesirable symptoms occur when the substance is ingested because the body has an inability to digest or process it properly.

Lactose is a sugar that is found in most dairy products. Lactase is the enzyme that breaks down lactose, and is produced in the cells within the small intestine. When these cells do not function properly, a person can have difficulties breaking lactose down (which is required before it is properly digested). These cells can not function properly because of the age of the person, or because of their genetic makeup. Many times individuals with celiac disease, or a gluten intolerance will have incurred damage to the part of their small intestine that produces the lactase. This is why a number of people that are gluten intolerant also have lactose intolerance and that when they are treated their lactose intolerance can wane.

Most of the symptoms of lactose intolerance are digestive (gas, bloating, diarrhea), while many of the symptoms associated with casein allergies are more systemic (itchy skin, respiratory ailments).

While lactose is a milk sugar, casein is a protein. Allergies to casein can result in difficulty breathing and be life-threatening or be limited to rashes, hives, and severe stomach distress. Lactose can be found only in dairy foods and as such is relatively easy to avoid by eliminating dairy from the diet. Casein, on the other hand, is used as a supplement in a number of different types of foods which makes avoid casein much more difficult. For instance, sports drinks and vitamin supplements may contain casein. Having a casein allergy means having to carefully examine ingredient labels. Furthermore, casein is found in many non-food items such as adhesives and binding agents in pharmaceuticals.

Lactose intolerance is much more common than casein allergies. Whereas three fourths of the world’s population is suspected of being lactose intolerant to some extent, only a few percent of individuals have casein allergies. Lactose intolerance is unrelated to a casein intolerance or allergy. While lactose intolerances and gluten allergies can go hand in hand, there is no such association between lactose and casein.

Because lactose intolerance is caused by the lack of an enzyme, it can often be treated by supplementing one’s diet with lactase. There are also brands of milk and ice cream that are lactose-free, which gives lactose intolerant individuals the ability to still enjoy dairy. There are no similar medications available for people suffering with casein intolerances and allergies.