The link between Asthma and cows’ milk is familiar to many young Asthma sufferers and their parents. I first became aware of the connection through my cousin’s experiences with his four-year-old son. Since infancy, my cousin’s son has experienced severe Asthma attacks and has been hospitalized twice for asthma-related pneumonia. When his asthma attacks become more frequent or more severe, my cousin and his wife respond by temporarily eliminating milk and milk products from his diet, and it usually works. I always assumed that milk worsened his Asthma by stimulating mucus production in his lungs. However, studies suggest that, either along with or instead of creating excess mucus, milk may worsen asthma due to an undiagnosed milk Allergy.
“In all respiratory conditions, mucous-forming dairy foods, such as milk and cheese, can exacerbate clogging of the lungs and should be avoided,” writes Professor Gary Null in his Complete Encyclopedia of Natural Healing. Very simply, when more mucus accumulates in the lungs than can be expelled, asthma attacks develop. This belief has long been held in practiced medicine, and many medical doctors still stand behind this theory.
At the same time, many other doctors and researchers are now beginning to feel that undiagnosed milk allergies may be the underlying problem behind the link between milk and asthma. As Dr. Robert M. Giller writes in Natural Prescriptions, eliminating dairy products from the diets of many adult and child asthma patients helps “not because dairy products stimulate mucus production but because they’re very common causes of allergy, upper-respiratory allergies and asthma (which may be an allergy in itself).”
“Milk is one of the two or three most common food allergens in the American diet,” says allergy specialist Dr. James Braly in Bill Gottlieb’s book Alternative Cures. In fact, Dr. Frank Oski, the chief of pediatrics at the John Hopkins School of Medicine, believes that 50 percent of all schoolchildren may be allergic to milk, though many of them remain undiagnosed. Some researchers believe that the figure may be even higher, up to 60 percent of children, according to Dr. Charles R. Attwoods’s book, A Vegetarian Doctor Speaks Out. When most people think of milk allergies, they think of anaphylactic shock - a severe, life-threatening allergic reaction that can only be relieved with a shot of epinephrine. However, allergies sometimes manifest in very different ways, and these may change throughout a person’s life.
- wheezing o usually begins suddenly o is episodic o may be worse at night or in early morning o aggravated by exposure to cold air o aggravated by exercise o aggravated by heartburn (reflux) o resolves spontaneously o relieved by bronchodilators (drugs that open the airways)
- cough with or without sputum (phlegm) production
- shortness of breath that is aggravated by exercise
- breathing that requires increased work
- intercostal retractions (pulling of the skin between the ribs when breathing)
- extreme difficulty breathing
- bluish color to the lips and face
- severe anxiety
- rapid pulse
- decreased level of consciousness (severe drowsiness or confusion) during an asthma attack
Additional symptoms that may be associated with this disease:
- nasal flaring
- chest pain
- tightness in the chest
- abnormal breathing pattern, in which exhalation (breathing out) takes more than twice as long as inspiration (breathing in)
- breathing which temporarily stops
- coughing up blood
In Get Healthy Now, Professor Null explains a milk allergy’s changing symptoms: “Even if the symptoms are not the same, the underlying allergy may be. A child who has suffered milk-associated Asthma, for instance, may have severe acne as a teenager. The milk allergy is still there, but its symptoms have moved to a different organ system, often misleading the patient and physician into thinking that the original allergy has been outgrown.” According to Alternative Medicine, up to half of all infants may be sensitive to cows’ milk. As a result, symptoms of an underlying milk allergy may start as early as infancy, only manifested as eczema, a symptom that may remain later on in childhood and adulthood. Furthermore, in addition to Asthma and Eczema, an underlying milk allergy may manifest as bronchitis, sinusitis, autoimmune disorders, frequent colds and ear infections and even behavioral problems.
Antibiotics in milk
Like any dairy allergy, the milk protein is probably the cause of allergy-related Asthma. However, according to Dr. Oski, some children and adults may not be allergic to the milk itself, but rather the small amount of antibiotics passed into the milk from dairy cows. Dr. Oski explains this phenomenon: “Antibiotics, most commonly penicillin, are given to cows for the treatment of mastitis, an inflammation of the udders. Cows are not supposed to be milked for 48 hours after receiving penicillin. Often this precaution is not followed and then penicillin appears in the milk in small quantities.” If you or your child is part of the estimated one percent of the United States population who develop symptoms of penicillin allergy after drinking antibiotic-contaminated milk, you may be able to stop your allergy by drinking milk from cows that are not treated with antibiotics. To be on the safe side however, you may want to entirely eliminate cows’ milk from your or your asthmatic child’s diet.
Whether milk causes excess mucus production, is an undiagnosed allergy or a combination or both - research suggests that milk definitely worsens Asthma. Accordingly, a diet that is free of both milk and meat, another common allergen, can greatly lessen Asthma symptoms. According to a study of 25 patients reported in Jean Carper’s book, Food: Your Miracle Medicine, after following a milk- and meat-free diet for only four months, 71 percent of the patients experienced an improvement in their asthma symptoms. After a year, Asthma improved in 92 percent of the patients. On a larger scale, Dr. Joseph Pizzorno, President Emeritus of Bastyr University, found that 25 percent of respiratory patients experienced long-term improvement after following a vegan diet, a diet that contains no animal products - dairy, eggs and meat - whatsoever.
Plenty of calcium from other food sources
While considering a milk-free diet for themselves or their children, many people worry that doing so will result in a calcium deficiency. In a Washington press conference, Suzanne Havala, registered dietician and co-author of the American Dietetic Association’s 1992 edition of its position paper on vegetarian diets, said that after weaning, humans do not need to drink milk: “Vegetarians and their children get all the calcium they need from leafy vegetables, broccoli, tahini and tofu made with calcium sulfate.” So, according to research, if you have asthma, you can happily adjust to life without cows’ milk without really missing anything, except severe asthma attacks.
Revision date: June 22, 2011
Last revised: by Sebastian Scheller, MD, ScD