My husband Doug used to be sick every single day.
First they thought he had an ulcer, then maybe it was acid reflux. Later they did a sonogram to see if there was a tumor, or a growth, or a rupture in his organs. He had abdominal pain, swelling, shortness of breath, and chest pains for over a year. He didn’t know what the problem was, and the worry was almost as difficult as the physical pain.
He was diagnosed as having acid reflux disease, so he took an expensive prescription medicine for several months, but it didn’t seem to help. His doctor encouraged him to keep taking it, saying that it could take time for everything to heal. Doug couldn’t help but feel like they were just treating the symptoms, but didn’t know what was really wrong. This pain affected every aspect of his life. Some days were better than others, and he knew he felt better when he didn’t eat at all.
One day in January 2005, Doug got the flu. I thank God for that flu. He passed out at the doctor’s office with a temperature of 103, and he didn’t eat anything but crackers, water, and 7Up for the next five days. When his fever finally broke, he was still weak and shaky, but somehow he felt better than he had in an entire year.
He had no pain at all in his stomach. He didn’t know how he could feel so good after just getting over the flu! Then he poured himself a tall glass of milk. He was back in bed 45 minutes later with sharp chest pain. He couldn’t take a deep breath, and he felt like there was a strong foot pressed against him. That’s how Doug learned that all this time, it was milk that was making him sick.
At this point we didn’t understand it very well. Thinking it could be lactose intolerance, Doug tried drinking lactose-free milk and taking lactase enzyme pills to help his body digest it, but they didn’t work. The lactose wasn’t the problem; he was still getting sick. He had quite a few tests done to see if anything else could be wrong. He had a dozen different blood tests. He had a battery of allergy tests, but they all came up negative.
He stopped drinking milk, eating ice cream, and putting cream in his coffee, and he felt a lot better. Reluctant to give up milk completely, he struggled with it over the next year, but it was still such an improvement.
Identify the Problem Using a Food Journal
By keeping track of his diet and noting how foods made him feel, we eventually realized that what the foods had in common was casein.
Doug has a casein intolerance. Casein is a protein in milk, and it is used as a filler in many commercially-prepared foods. So even though Doug had stopped drinking milk, he was still continually exposed to casein through sandwich breads, gravy mixes, pancake mixes, cereals, protein powders, and many other foods that we never would have suspected.
An intolerance is different from an allergy, which explains why it didn’t show up in the allergy tests. Casein can be hard to recognize because it goes by several different names on an ingredients label. Many foods that are advertised as “non-dairy” or “dairy-free” still contain casein.
Casein Intolerance Symptoms
Gradually Doug’s sensitivity to casein became worse and he had to be more careful. He started getting headaches and a low-grade fever if he ate a biscuit or a pancake made with milk. A food intolerance can be a tricky thing — sometimes you can eat the food and have it only mildly affect you, but other times it can send you right into a tailspin.
One time Doug ordered chicken salad at a restaurant, and before he even finished it, he was in so much pain. It made him extremely sick for three weeks, and he experienced:
- stiffness and aches
- clinical diarrhea
- strange and tingly feelings in his fingers
- shortness of breath
- chest and abdominal pain
A new doctor explained to Doug that he should start viewing casein as if it were poison to his body, and not let himself eat any foods with casein. That was the motivation he needed to give up all milk completely.
Avoiding Casein and Milk
Sometimes it’s hard. Milk, cream, or cheese is part of any classic American dish. He misses pizza. He feels like a burden when a dinner host has to consider his individual needs for a meal. He doesn’t get to share the cake or ice cream at parties. He really misses cheese, not to mention cheesecake. But all of those are well worth giving up when he thinks about how he no longer feels sick the way he used to.
A food intolerance can be difficult to diagnose. Honestly I believe that many people are suffering from a food intolerance, but they don’t even realize it and are medicating the symptoms with prescription drugs. Casein is just one of many food ingredients that can cause problems. People can be intolerant to gluten, MSG, and caffeine, just to name a few others.
It’s a couple years later and we’ve adapted to a milk-free diet. Adding probiotics and enzymes as supplements have helped him avoid getting sick from small accidental exposures. We carefully check ingredients on labels now, and Doug hasn’t felt sick in a long time.
The turning point for us was when we stopped thinking of all the foods with milk that he can’t have, and we started to focus on the foods he can have.
For ideas about dairy-free foods, read Flavorful Food Without Milk.