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ADD & ADHD Center

Milk and Attention Deficit Disorder

author image Barbara A. Smith
Barbara Smith is an occupational therapist who has more than 30 years of experience working with children and adults with disabilities. She is a public speaker and the author of "The Recycling Occupational Therapist," "Still Giving Kisses" and "From Rattles to Writing: A Parent's Guide to Hand Skills."
Milk and Attention Deficit Disorder
A girl pouring milk over her cereal. Photo Credit mircea_dfa/iStock/Getty Images

Attention deficit disorder (ADD) is characterized by distractibility and difficulties managing time, organizing and concentrating. When a person is also very active, the syndrome is called attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Individuals with ADD are known to be vulnerable to food allergies and dairy products top the list of known allergens that may cause these symptoms.

The Problem With Milk

Milk is made up of many proteins but the two major suspects that cause allergies are whey and casein. Whey is the watery substance that is separated out when making cheese and casein is turned into “curds” during this process. Some people are “lactose intolerant,” which means that they have difficulty digesting milk products. This is different than an allergy, which can be life-threatening. Symptoms of milk allergies include stomach pain, wheezing, skin problems and nausea. Studies have also shown that the removal of milk, specifically casein from the diet has decreased hyperactivity and impulsivity in children with ADHD.

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Lactose Intolerance

Lactose is an enzyme used to digest the sugar lactose. People with lactose intolerance have a deficiency in this enzyme. Symptoms of lactose intolerance include upset stomach, gas, bloating and diarrhea. Lactose intolerance is not an immune response that results in inflammation, triggering the production of antibodies. However, milk allergies may damage the digestive system, causing a deficiency in lactose, thus causing lactose intolerance.

Detecting Milk Allergies

Milk allergies may be suspect based on symptoms that flare up during consumption. However, sensitivities or allergies can be further determined by using an elimination diet where milk is completely eliminated for five to seven days. Then it is reintroduced watching to see if symptoms appear. A physician can perform a blood test which is safer than the elimination diet if there is a risk of severe reaction upon milk reintroduction. A skin test can also assist in diagnosis. This involves placing the food allergen under the skin and observing the reaction. Some individuals react to an allergen immediately enabling a diagnosis based on a blood or skin test. However, more than half the young children with milk allergies have a delayed reaction in which case, the elimination test would be a more accurate diagnostic tool.

Creating a Dairy-free Diet

Casein is found in all mammal’s milk so goat’s, sheep’s and even human breast milk can trigger allergic reactions. Casein is also used in many foods as a binding agent, so one needs to carefully read the labels or shop at a health food store that sells food products specifically for customers with dietary restrictions. There are numerous casein-free cook books on the market and even cooking classes. Individuals who do not eat dairy products should make sure that they receive adequate protein and calcium through other sources, such as tofu, eggs, leafy greens, legumes, whole grains and fortified cereals.

Children and Food Allergies

Children on the autism spectrum often have a dual diagnosis of ADD. Food allergies in this population are very common and there have been reports of promising results when both dairy and wheat products are removed from the diet. This diet is called “glutin-free casein-free” (GFCF). Individuals with ADD alone or a dual diagnosis of ADD and autism may benefit from this diet. It is recommended that a physician confirm any food allergy and a nutritionist assist in designing an appropriate diet.

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  • “Prescription for Natural Cures;” James F. Balch, M.D.; 2004
  • “No More Ritalin: Treating ADHD Without Drugs;” Mary Ann block, M.D.; 1996
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