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  • Writer's pictureMiranda Brown

Are Chinese Lactose Intolerant? Traditional Chinese medicine says otherwise.

We all know the stereotype: Chinese food is dairy free, because Asians are, as a rule, lactose intolerant. Unlike Northern Europeans, they are born without the enzyme that breaks down complex milk sugars in adult intestines. Since I am a grown-up and Asian, this means that I will get diarrhea every time I have a glass of milk (or maybe every other time since I am only half Chinese). Q.E.D. I should play it safe and stick to soy

Traditional Chinese medicine, however, begs to differ.

Physicians in traditional China actually thought that milk promoted gut health. They prescribed dairy foods for a variety of stomach problems. Feeling nauseous? Drink a cup of sheep’s milk. Unable to eat? Mix equal parts raw and cooked cow’s milk, and drink twice a day on an empty stomach. Got a problem with a distended belly because of chronic constipation? Combine a little milk with a lot of mallow seeds.

In the eyes of Chinese doctors, you really could not go wrong with dairy. Milk was good for just about any condition. You could drop donkey’s milk into the ears to expel bugs, or make enemas out of sheep’s milk yogurt. For a more appealing remedy, broil pears in butter and honey. It will cure the common cough and give you a sugar rush.

Chinese physicians also gave their patients cow’s milk, simmered with Indian long peppers, to treat dysentery. By most accounts, the remedy worked wonders. Some patients reported being cured after only a few sips.

Scenes of milking and milk drinking from a Chinese tomb in mid-second century AD

Chinese doctors not only regarded milk as a potent drug, but they also believed it should be a constant part of the diet. They urged their patients to make a daily habit of dairy. Take the famed authority on Chinese medicine, Sun Simiao (581-682). Sun encouraged his patients to load up on cow’s milk and butter, even if they suffered from weak stomachs. Cow’s milk made you strong and energetic and your skin moist. Yogurt kept things moving through the large intestine. Ghee was a superfood that added years to your life.

It’s time for us to retire the stereotype. Had milk really caused the runs, I’m sure that Chinese doctors would have noticed and steered their patients clear of dairy. Since they did the reverse and told people to consume more milk, we should take heed.

After all, these doctors have treated Chinese bellies for centuries.

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Jun 05, 2019

Fascinating article, Miranda - even though I have read that milk was used extensively in China historically, I do tend to forget this often. I wonder, though, about the availability of milk to the general population, say, during the Tang and the Song. I find it also interesting that today sheep milk/yogurt is actively promoted as a effective replacement for cow's milk for those who are lactose intolerant. There are also stomach problems and stomach problems...a glass of milk helping those with ulcers, for instance. Even an authority such as Sun Simiao might have made diagnostic mistakes....!! Food for thought, though, Miranda!!

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