Dairy has been both glorified and demonized a lot in the last decade, earning a number of labels including inflammatory, mucus producing, and fattening. However, is it an issue with the kind of dairy, or does the problem lie in the body you’re putting it into? How can a natural, whole food that has nourished generations be so problematic and cause issues such as food allergies and lactose intolerance?
Why might you be sensitive? Here's my top 5 reasons...
1) Vitamin A toxicity
While dairy isn't inherently bad, overexposure for decades can be. You see, dairy products are incredibly rich in fat-soluble vitamins, which are subject to toxicity. You can't just pee them out when you get too much (like water-soluble vitamins), they are stored in tissues. Vitamin A levels can creep up in persons overdoing dairy and/or other sources of vitamin A (think supplements, eggs, butter, liver, etc.) and excess is stored in the liver.
I often see excess vitamin A accumulations in those who feel like dairy makes them gain weight.
Sometimes when you don't feel good after eating a food, it might be your body communicating to you that it doesn't need the nutrients and they could actually be stressing out your liver. Read more on vitamin A toxicity and how to test for it here.
2) Dairy can be problematic to digest
If you have nutritional deficiencies, nutritional excess, liver-gut issues and a slowed metabolism, you probably have weak digestive juices that don't allow you to digest your food properly.
This can set the stage for lactose intolerance, which just means you don't produce enough lactase, the enzyme needed to digest the sugar in milk.
For these people, low lactose dairy can be a better choice, like that found in firmer cheeses, dry curd cottage cheese, and lactose-free daily products.
3) Dairy products have changed over the years in negative ways
Most (not all) dairy comes from unhealthy factory farm cattle. This often means the cow was fed an unnatural diet, not allowed free movement or sunlight, and treated with antibiotics and hormones. All these factors can make the milk MORE allergenic and LESS friendly to your body. Sometimes just choosing a different sourcing or brand can make all the difference. According to Dr. Ray Peat, PhD, "People who have told me that they have had digestive problems with milk have sometimes found that a different brand of milk doesn’t cause any problem.”
Another huge factor to consider is the kind of milk you are drinking. According to Motherjones.com "An emerging body of research suggests that many of the 1 in 4 Americans who exhibit symptoms of lactose intolerance could instead be unable to digest A1, a protein most often found in milk from the high-producing Holstein cows favored by American and some European industrial dairies. The A1 protein is much less prevalent in milk from Jersey, Guernsey, and most Asian and African cow breeds, where, instead, the A2 protein predominates."
Because of the way A1 milk is broken down, it’s more likely to be a problem for those with poor health or gut issues, where as making the switch to A2 milk may not be necessary for healthy individuals. According to Dr. Thomas Cowan, “One saving grace, as expressed in Devil in the Milk, is that the absorption of BCM 7 is much lower in people with a healthy GI tract. This also parallels the ideas of the GAPS theory which expounds upon this topic. BCM 7 is also not found in goat’s or sheep’s milk, so these types of milk might be better tolerated by those with a compromised digestive system.” For anyone suffering from lactose intolerance or inflammatory diseases (autoimmunity, Rheumatoid arthritis, etc.) as well as autism, and diabetes, a trial swap is a very worthwhile idea.
A2 dairy products are those that come from goats, sheep, humans, about 65% of Jersey cows, and a few other varieties. Milk that is considered to be A2 dairy is NOT the traditional cow milk that you’ll find at your local grocery store. Traditional cow milk is what you call A1 dairy, commonly from a breed of cows called Holsteins, the most common dairy-cow breed you’ll find in the US.
4) Added vitamins and additives
Reduced fat and fat-free milks require synthetic vitamins to be added back in because vitamins A and D are found in the fat of the milk. According to Dr. Peat, "Milk with reduced fat content is required by US law to have vitamins D and A added. The vehicle used in the vitamin preparation, and the industrial contaminants in the “pure” vitamins themselves, are possible sources of allergens in commercial milk, so whole milk is the most likely to be free of allergens.”
Added synthetic vitamins can contribute to things like vitamin A toxicity, and could result in a poor response to dairy consumption.
Some brands of milk contain additives and gums such as carrageenan that are known to cause GI irritation. In addition, 90% of North American Cheese is made with GMO derived rennet.
Hormonal imbalance conditions such as progesterone deficiency and excess estrogen can actually allow you to lose the ability to produce lactase (ie. become lactose intolerance). Lactase is the enzyme needed to digest the sugar in milk. This can produce symptoms such as diarrhea, constipation, bloating, gas and more severe distress for some, such as a “shards of glass” feeling in the intestines. Not fun!
Benefits of dairy:
- Dairy is a true nutritional powerhouse. What other food gives you protein, carbohydrates, and fat in one single food that requires no cooking?
- Milk contains very high quality protein.
- Contains low levels of unsaturated fats (PUFA) and iron (iron build-up can lead to increased inflammation).
- Dairy is high in calcium and can have a significant “anti-stress” effect on the body (maybe a hint to why stress can trigger ice cream cravings?).
If dietary calcium isn’t sufficient, causing blood calcium to decrease, the PTH increases, and removes calcium from bones to maintain a normal amount in the blood. PTH has many other effects, contributing to inflammation, calcification of soft tissues, and decreased respiratory energy production.” Dr. Ray Peat, PhD.
Trouble in paradise: Is it lactose intolerance or a casein sensitivity that’s bugging you?
- If you find that you can tolerate hard-aged cheeses (firm cheddar, Asiago or Parmesan) but you have digestive issues with milk and ice cream, this is a key indicator that you are having a problem digesting lactose (the sugar in milk). If this is so, seek out lactose-free dairy options: such as lactose-free yogurt, sour cream, cottage cheese, and firm cheeses, while you work on up-regulating your digestive juices to tolerate lactose again.
- A casein sensitivity is the other thing to look out for. Casein is the protein in milk, and there are a wide variety of symptoms that can result. Look out for symptoms that appear to be triggering your body’s stress response.
Tips for incorporating dairy (if you are sensitive or lactose intolerant)
- If you are sensitive to the casein in dairy, you need to eliminate it for a period of time, while you work on strengthening your digestive environment.
- If you have trouble digesting lactose, it’s best to avoid it while strengthening your digestive environment and focus on up-regulating digestive juices. Sometimes after working with a nutritionist on your digestion, you can reintroduce lactose after a period of time without any issues, although this often can take up to 6-12 months or more. In the meantime, here’s a few tips to aid you in experimenting to find your level of tolerance:
- Give raw goats milk or A2 dairy products a try. They are easier on your stomach.
- Try aged goat and cow cheeses, such as Parmesan, which has virtually zero lactose. The longer the cheese is aged, the less lactose, so think aged cheddar and other firm cheeses.
- Test out your reaction to homemade kefir and lactose-free products: yogurt, sour cream and dry curd cottage cheese to get the nutritional benefits without the digestive distress.
Tips for reintroduction:
After avoiding it for a period of time, go slow when you start reintroducing:
- Start with a small amount of Parmesan, since it is typically made with animal rennet and contains virtually no lactose.
- If that goes okay, try small amounts of clean, lactose-containing cheeses such as mascarpone and ricotta.
- Finally, introduce a small amount of milk (1-2 oz. /day) for a few weeks and slowly increase. A little milk in your coffee each day is a great way to try this.
When a group of lactase deficient people have been given some milk every day for a few weeks, they have adapted, for example with tests showing that much less hydrogen gas was produced from lactose by intestinal bacteria after they had adapted,” Dr. Ray Peat, PhD.
If you don’t like dairy or it doesn't work for you at all, that’s okay too. Everyone is different, and it’s important to understand that this is not a one-plan-fits-all kind of thing. Experiment and see what works best for you!
Do you have a dairy sensitivity or have lactose intolerance? Please share in the comments!
Peat, Ray. Milk in context: allergies, ecology, and some myths. 2011. Retrieved on November 17, 2012 from http://raypeat.com/articles/articles/milk.shtml