Before we get moving on some dairy education, I want to recognize that stealing someone’s cheese is about as serious to Americans as removing apple pie from the fall dessert lineup. My goal with this series on going gluten-free and dairy-free is first and foremost to give you the information that I have learned. Second, it is to empower you to see where some of the health symptoms you or your family may be suffering with can have connections to nutrition. And last, I want to empower you to evaluate those symptom connections, and equip you to evaluate for your own individual body whether or not gluten or dairy are offenders for you. With the rise of the ketogenic diet, we’ve seen a wave back into eating full-fat dairy products, so dairy gets a lot of debate and chatter these days - and for good reason. Let’s take a look.
What is dairy?
This is a bit more familiar category, but dairy encompasses milk and milk products like cream, butter, sour cream buttermilk, cheese, ghee, whey and whey-protein isolate, yogurt, ice cream and cheese curds. Grass-fed dairy, such as Kerrygold butter, is a type of dairy that involves pastured cows fed grass, no grains. There are varying degrees of grass-fed and regulation is a bit unclear, so getting to the source - your farmer - will answer the question of whether the animal only ate grass or also dined on grains. Dairy does not include eggs or mayonnaise which can have an egg component, despite their location in the grocery store.
Folks with dairy-issues may separate out goat and sheep’s milks and cheeses made with these milks because they contain a more easily digestible protein than cow’s milk.
Why is dairy a problem? And for who?
When you’re a baby you need milk for nourishment, right? In this season, your body also produces enzymes to digest lactase - one of the many proteins in milk. As you grow out of infancy, the period of most rapid human growth, your body makes less and less lactase. Some adults continue to be able to digest lactase and many others, as much of 75% of the world’s population is lactose intolerant. Of these, around 40% can tolerate goat’s milk because of its different protein. It is possible to have a milk allergy or an allergy to any of the protein components of dairy.
Let’s think about milk and milk production for a moment. Milk is produced by who? Lactating cows. Who lactates? A female mammal, after giving birth. Who produces a host of hormones on a sliding scale in the months after birth? Female mammals. Typical dairy process is to pull the calf from the mother after birth, so that her milk may be used for human consumption. While pasteurization will kill potentially pathogenic microbes, it does not remove hormones. What pasteurization does remove are the natural enzymes that aid the human body in digesting dairy’s proteins. Some folks prefer raw milk, for the enzyme and more whole-food and high vitamin content, while others see the history of the purpose for pasteurization and walk away. You are free to choose either way: raw or pasteurized.
Know what you can’t choose about your milk? The hormones passed from the mother, into your milk by way of her natural process of lactation that is meant to nourish her calf. If you’re struggling with hormonal based issues, for example PCOS, a regular nutritional recommendation is to remove dairy from your diet for this extra hormones reason. Additionally, to meet the demand for milk in a country where dairies are closing left and right - cows are being treated with synthetic growth hormones to increase production. Unfortunately, these hormones also make their way into your milk. More hormones = no thanks. Dairy consumption increases the body’s level of insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1) - a known cancer promoter.
Dairy is also a common food sensitivity, causing inflammation, which is again related to leaky gut. When proteins make their way into the small intestine, undigested, they can then sneak out of the gut into the body where additional inflammation will occur. Dairy has been shown to contribute to elevated CRP levels. Additionally, eating grass-fed milk and milk products will keep the cow away from a grain-fed diet which changes their fatty acid profile. Grass-fed cows products contain omega-3 and omega-6 fats at the ideal 1:1 ratio, while grain-fed animals produce more omega-6 fats, also known to be pro-inflammatory.
But I just can’t quit my cheese, ice cream and afternoon frappuccino!
The final detail to considering dairy-free and the most compelling reason in our home is the addictive component. Yep, those feels you’re having aren’t just in your head.
Remember some of the main proteins in milk: lactase, whey and casein? In the body, casein becomes casomorphin and as their names indicate, casomorphin has morphinelike components. In our brains, we have opiate receptors - that’s why opiates are so addicting and effective when used appropriately and why dopamine gives us the good feels - casomorphin attaches to these receptors and can produce the same feels as opiates.
The levels are much lower than a drug, but can give you lessened versions of the same symptoms: spaciness and “brain fog”, continual fatigue, moodiness, anxiety and depression, sleep problems and problems with speech and hearing. Too-high levels of casomorphin and the similar component found in gluten, gliadorphin, are common in children. A significant number of children and adults with ADHD are found to have high levels of either of these compounds and of those, 90% are high in casomorphin.
In our home, casomorphin addiction was showing up at bedtime. Once I was done nursing, we’d offer a bit of milk before bed and the antics would begin. Oppositional behavior, punching, severe tantrums, generally over-the-top bedtime behavior that was at times scary. I started to notice the pattern and replaced bedtime cow’s milk with almond milk. Wha-lah. Sweet, little bedtime boy. But it wasn’t that easy. Once I removed the milk, the addiction kicked back in and I found cheese missing from the fridge each morning, then a pint of ice cream left empty in the freezer and corresponding handprints on the front. My young preschooler was waking in the night and craving dairy and making his own way to consume it. I moved to remove all dairy from the home and we spent a bit of time with an irritable little guy who soon reverted to his mostly steady self, symptom free. Sounds wild, but I’ve seen the same addictive effect in adults. Needing a daily milkshake or stopping by an ice cream store (or 3!) daily, only to have extreme periods of busyness or an extreme crash after milk consumption? You might give second thought to why that habit is in place - might be the milk and not your inability to control cravings.
Some of this is sounding familiar to me, but how would I know if I have a milk sensitivity?
First things first, I’d ask if you experience any of the following on a regular basis: Acne, constipation, inflammation, bloating, gas, eczema, allergies, unexplained weight gain, post-nasal drip, irregular energy, asthma, chronic infections such as sinus or ear. Related disease states include osteoporosis, obesity, diabetes, heart disease and ovarian, breast, colon and prostate cancers.
Second, you can easily take a food sensitivity test through an at-home option like Everlywell, or visit with a functional doctor who can order a Gluten/Casein peptide test from Great Plains Laboratory if you suspect you or your little may have an addictive response to dairy. This can be a key component in healing up behavioral and mental health disorders, particularly in children who have less body mass with which to handle these opiate-receptor symptoms.
But wait, don’t I neeeeed milk so that I can get adequate calcium?
Yes, we need calcium, but most Americans are getting adequate levels through our foods, what we’re not getting are the cofactors that allow our body to use calcium. Seeds, nuts, legumes and leafy greens are high in calcium as are sardines and salmon, if you’re worries about your intake.
You’re able to grow those strong bones apart from dairy, but what about keeping them? Turns out, calcium is not be as bone protective as we thought. Studies have shown no benefit in preventing fractures, in fact Vitamin D is showing more protection against fractures. Further, according to the Nurses’ Health Study dairy may increase risk of fractures by 50 percent. When it comes to osteoporosis, countries with the lowest rates of dairy and calcium consumption (like those in Asia and Africa) have the lowest rates. Curious.