A cheese allergy and cheese intolerance sound like the same thing, though these are two very different problems. Different issues cause them, and they cause different symptoms. If you think you may be reacting somehow to cheese, then read on. Today we’re going to look at the differences between these two types of reactions. We will discuss the differences between an allergy and an intolerance, what symptoms you should expect with these, how to test for them, and what to do if you have a cheese intolerance. But first, let’s look at the difference between a cheese allergy and a cheese intolerance.
Cheese allergy vs intolerance
A cheese allergy and a cheese intolerance are very different conditions.
If you have a cheese allergy, you experience symptoms because your immune system reacts to the cheese. Every time you eat cheese, your immune system mistakenly thinks that the cheese is a dangerous invader and that it must protect you from it. To protect you, your immune system creates antibodies (called IgE antibodies). These antibodies recognise each time you eat the cheese, and they cause your body to mount an allergic reaction.
During an allergic reaction, your body releases lots and lots of histamine. You might know about this chemical because of ‘anti-histamines (the medication used to reduce allergy symptoms). Histamine is the chemical that your immune system produces in reaction to something that it thinks is a dangerous invader – in this case, the cheese. You eat the cheese, the antibodies recognise it, and the antibodies push your body into releasing histamine. Histamine then causes all the symptoms of the cheese allergy (which we will highlight below).
When you have a cheese allergy, you may be reacting to the protein in the cheese (called casein) or to the sugar in the cheese (called lactose). So it could be either a casein or a lactose allergy. These are the most common allergies, especially in children.
If you have a cheese intolerance, you experience symptoms because your body isn’t digesting the cheese sugar, lactose properly. You see, to break down lactose, you need to have an enzyme called lactase. If you don’t have enough of this enzyme, your body has a tough time breaking down and absorbing lactose. What happens then is that the lactose doesn’t get absorbed in the small intestine (where it should happen). Instead, the large particles of undigested lactose travel to the colon and get digested by bacteria. As the bacteria feed on the lactose, they produce gas, and this gas causes all kinds of uncomfortable digestive symptoms.
Cheese contains a small amount of lactose, but this can very well add up! This means that you might not get many (if any) symptoms from eating just a little bit of cheese. But then if you eat more cheese, you will feel the effects.
It is very common for humans not to produce enough lactase enzyme. In fact, about 75% of the world’s population are deficient in lactase (though not everyone develops symptoms of lactose intolerance). You can develop a deficiency in the lactase enzyme from irritation or damage to the gut. Your body also starts to produce less and less lactase enzyme as you age.
If you have a cheese allergy, the symptoms can start within minutes to 2 hours after eating cheese. These symptoms can be mild or can be severe and even life-threatening symptoms, a reaction called anaphylaxis.
The symptoms of a cheese allergy include:
If you have significant allergy symptoms, then you must seek medical attention immediately. Carrying an adrenaline auto-injector (e.g. EpiPen, Jext) and/or anti-histamines with you is beneficial if you have had an allergic reaction in the past.
While the symptoms of cheese intolerance can start within 30 minutes of eating cheese, it can take up to 48 hours for symptoms to occur. As we saw, for an allergy, the symptoms often come on much quicker. Allergy symptoms can also come on from the tiniest amount of cheese. In contrast, intolerance symptoms are dependent on how much you eat (i.e. the more cheese you have, the more digestive symptoms you have).
The symptoms of cheese intolerance include:
To find out if you have a cheese intolerance or a cheese allergy, you need to do the proper testing for them. They are different conditions with different triggers, so they also require different tests.
If you have an allergy to cheese, you can test for the allergy by having a blood or skin prick test through a GP or immunologist. Remember how we talked about the IgE antibodies that your immune system produces during an allergic reaction? This is what you would test for with a cheese allergy test. If you suspect that you have an allergy or you experience anaphylaxis, then you must see a doctor immediately.
If you think you have an intolerance to cheese, you can test it with our food intolerance test HERE. It is a non-invasive hair test that you can do easily from your home. Simply order the test and send us a sample of your hair. You will receive your test results within three days of us receiving your sample. The results will tell you if you have an intolerance to cheese and test for 500 other food and non-food items!
If your test result shows that you do have an intolerance to cheese, then it’s important that you avoid eating cheese for a period of three months. During this time, you need to address the reason for the cheese intolerance – which, as we have seen, is a deficiency in the enzyme lactase. In order to reverse your food intolerance, you need to repair any damage or irritation to your gut, which is preventing your body from adequately producing the lactase enzyme. While under the direction of a nutritionist or naturopath, you may also need to supplement with the lactase enzyme while you work to restore your body’s natural production of lactase.
If you notice your body reacting to eating cheese, then it’s essential to know whether you have an allergic reaction or if you have an intolerance to cheese. As we saw today, a cheese allergy and cheese intolerance are very different types of reactions. An allergy can occur after eating the smallest amount of cheese, and the response is more immediate. If you have a cheese allergy, the immune reaction can affect your skin, airways (breathing), and gut. The symptoms can be mild or a severe anaphylactic reaction.
In contrast, if you have a cheese intolerance, your gut will be affected because the intolerance is caused by poor digestion of the cheese. The cheese contains the sugar lactose, which the lactase enzyme must break down. If you do not have or produce enough of this enzyme, you will experience digestive upset. To find out whether you have an intolerance to cheese, you can order your intolerance test HERE. If your results show that you have a cheese intolerance, then you can reverse the intolerance with the help of our expert nutrition and naturopathy team.