I’m writing from a land of cows. A land of dairy farms. A land economically, culturally and emotionally invested in the wonder-food of cow’s milk and it’s mythical promise of glowing good health. Milk, cheese, icecream, yoghurt…these are all wholesome foods right?
Maybe the picture isn’t so rosy, at least not for everyone.
There is a growing public awareness of the symptoms of dairy intolerance – a sensitivity or reactivity to cow’s milk products. Like many intolerances or sensitivities, symptoms can be variable and individual. Some people also have a tolerance limit, they can handle a little but not too much. Some people are ok with cheese but not with milk. If in doubt, it pays to do some detective work.
Even if you don’t notice any particular effects from eating dairy products, it might be worth looking at your dairy consumption if you’re interested in health.
Here are our top 5 reasons why dairy can be a problem:
Lactase is the name of the specific enzyme we have in-house, in our digestive systems, which helps break down lactose, the sugar found in milk and milk products.
Unfortunately, while we humans typically have good levels of lactase when we’re babies (to digest breastmilk), this level declines over time until for many people, it’s at negligible levels by adulthood. Not being able to properly break down the lactose causes it to ferment in the gut, creating unwanted and uncomfortable gas, distention, cramping, and bowel changes.
Common signs of lactose intolerance include digestive upsets such as cramping, pain, bloating, diarrhoea, gas and flatulence. For some people it can also cause constipation.
Some forms of dairy have lower levels of lactose; milk has the highest levels and cheeses have the lowest levels. Yoghurts that have live bacteria such as acidophilus and bifidus species are often well tolerated as the bacteria can help to break down some of the lactose. On the low-FODMAP diet, some cheeses are acceptable depending on the amount consumed. If the idea of FODMAPs are completely foreign to you, read more here.
Lactose intolerance can be exacerbated by dysbiosis in the digestive system, such as Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO), a common driver of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).
Reactivity to dairy is not limited to lactose intolerance however, and simply buying lactose-free dairy products is not always the answer…
2. Its not just the sugars….fats and proteins too
While lactose is the main sugar in milk, as discussed above, the fats and proteins in dairy can be problematic too.
Fats from dairy are saturated, meaning they are stable. Think of butter- a stable, hard fat, as compared to olive oil, a liquid with monounsaturated fats. Diets high in saturated fats have been implicated in cardiovascular disease.
The proteins in milk are caseins and whey, and these can also be problematic and cause reactivity. Often people with dairy intolerance are reactive to the casein as much as to lactose. In babies and infants, it is often the proteins that are hard to digest rather than the sugars. Read on below about how caseins or caseinates can trigger inflammation in some people.
The proteins in milk are caseins and whey. Whey is typically rather non-reactive. Caseins, especially A1 casein, can cause inflammation in some people. If you’re sensitive to it, casein consumption will trigger the release of inflammatory mediators and wreack all kinds of havoc in your body. For babies and children this may manifest as recurrent glue ear or eczema, and for adults it may contribute to asthma, hayfever, acne, or menstrual problems, to name a few. In those who are sensitive it may also drive up your histamine. For more on histamine read here. Perhaps inflammation is at the heart of the 2017 study which showed that participants who consumed the most dairy (and the least fruit and veg) had the highest mortality rates.
4. Hormonal Havoc
If we get right down to it, cow’s milk is the ‘breast-milk’ of a cow, meant for its baby calf. As such, it is full of growth factors and hormones. That’s right, cow hormones, including oestrogens. It also has androgenic properties, promoting male hormonal activity.
Some research points to the link between dairy consumption and hormonal cancers such as prostate, testicular, breast and ovarian cancers. Other cancers such as lung cancer and colon cancer have also been linked to dairy consumption.
Insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1) is a hormone present in cow’s milk that supports rapid growth and cell division when baby cows are rocketing in height and weight. Consuming dairy products also increases IGF-1 in humans, having a similarly anabolic (building the body, stimulating growth) effect. It is thought that this may be responsible for the link with dairy and various cancers. IGF-1 also acts similarly to insulin (hence its name), having effects on blood sugar and carbohydrate metabolism.
5. Its Not All the Calcium its Cracked Up to Be!
Milk is hailed as the best source of calcium, and marketed as such. Dairy is held up as the ultimate answer to prevention of osteoporosis and for the growing of healthy strong children. Studies repeatedly show however, that dairy intake has no positive correlation with a reduction in osteoporosis. Plant based diets can also provide adequate sources of calcium. For non-dairy sources of calcium, please read here.
This is by no means a fully fleshed discussion of the pros and cons of dairy, we haven’t even gotten into the raw milk debate! We haven’t touched on goat’s milk or sheep’s milk. And organic dairy is different from non-organic dairy. But hopefully its enough to make you think carefully about your dairy consumption. Are you having the right amount for you? Could your symptoms be due to too much dairy? If in doubt, elimination or testing can help you be your own dairy detective.