The Real Deal on Cow's Dairy Pt. I

One of the most common foods we get asked about is dairy. Over the years we’ve seen a growing amount of speculation and controversy around whether dairy is a health food, or truly the devil.

With that in mind we thought it would be really worthwhile to outline what the main concerns with dairy are from a nutritional standpoint (I know the ethics of modern dairy production are another story) and what arguments hold the most weight. There is quite a bit to cover, so we’ve broken it into two parts. Today we’re discussing the pros and cons of dairy from a digestive standpoint and the potential concerns with dairy and hormones and inflammation.

When you're done part 1, hop on over to part 2, where we discuss dairy and bone health.

Dairy and Digestive Health

The Prevalence of Lactose Intolerance

One of the main concerns with dairy consumption is that most people (about 65%) are said to have some form of lactose intolerance, with the highest prevalence in people of East Asian descent and the lowest in those of Northern European descent (likely because they have a long history of consuming fermented dairy products). The majority of humans naturally stop producing significant amounts of lactase, which is the enzyme needed to properly break down lactose (the sugar in milk), sometime between the ages of two and five.

Even if you don’t have lactose intolerance, casein & whey, which are two other proteins in dairy, may be problematic for you. This is why some people who switch to lactose-free milk still don’t feel better. Goat’s milk is naturally lower in lactose than cow’s milk and while it does contain casein, it mostly contains the more easily digestible and less inflammatory form; which is a big part of the reason it’s thought to be healthier.

Sophie doesn’t seem to tolerate cow’s dairy well right now but is fine with her goat’s milk formula. Nutritionally, goat’s milk is considered to be the closest alternative to cow’s dairy at this time, but if your child has been diagnosed with a cow’s milk allergy (not sensitivity), this would not be a suitable alternative because of the similarities between cow and goat’s milk.

If you’re truly only lactose intolerant, you may be fine with yogurt or kefir (which are both full of beneficial probiotics that support your gut health), butter and some aged cheeses as they have lower forms of lactose, depending on your level of intolerance.

Dairy Sensitivities

Another factor we often see in those with digestive issues is a food sensitivity to dairy, which is when your immune system reacts to the proteins in dairy, and can cause an inflammatory reaction. Dairy is one of the top 10 more allergenic foods, making it a common food that comes up regularly on food sensitivity tests. Both food intolerances and food sensitivities are important because they can cause digestive symptoms like bloating, indigestion, pain, and or constipation/diarrhea if you continue to eat that food.

It’s also really important to note that digestive issues, like Celiac disease for example, can cause damage to the gut lining that can result in an inability to properly digest foods like dairy, something referred to as secondary lactose intolerance. Whenever we work with someone with digestive issues or inflammatory symptoms, we will often suggest removing dairy for a minimum of 1 month (in addition to other possibly problematic foods). Once you reintroduce it, you will be able to tell if it’s connected to your symptoms. It can be helpful to do this with the guidance of a nutritionist because there may be other factors involved and following an elimination diet on your own can be challenging.

The Benefits of Butter and Ghee for Healthy Gut Bacteria

Butter and ghee are one of the best dietary sources of butyrate, a short-chain fatty acid (SCFA). SCFAs are important because they provide the cells in your colon with energy. Because of its anti-inflammatory benefits in the gut, it has been shown to enhance intestinal barrier function, which is very important for nutrient absorption and immunity. Butyrate supplementation has also been shown to reduce abdominal pain in those with IBS. 

Butter (we always suggest grass-fed) has trace amounts of casein and lactose, while ghee has little to none, which makes it a good choice for people with an intolerance or sensitivity. It’s also good for cooking at high temperatures. You can also increase butyrate levels by eating more fiber rich foods.

Does Dairy Cause Inflammation?

While there is conflicting research on this subject when it comes to healthy individuals, there is a link between dairy and inflammatory conditions like rheumatoid arthritis and some autoimmune conditions.  Anecdotally, it’s worth adding that many of our clients who have other inflammatory symptoms like asthma, allergies, acne and eczema get noticeably better when they removed dairy.

The Impact of Hormones and Antibiotics on Humans

How the Hormones in Cows Milk Affect Humans

There is a lot of speculation circulating around the internet about how the high levels of hormones in lactating cows impact hormones in humans. 

This question was raised primarily because some dairy cows in the US (not Canada or Europe) are fed recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) to increase their milk production. While both natural and synthetic bovine growth hormones don’t appear to be biologically active in humans, it is still not clear what the impact of these hormones are over the long term. This was one of the reasons Canada chose to ban them, in addition to animal welfare concerns.

One of the main issues with BGH is that cows treated with rBGH have higher levels of IGF-1, a hormone that normally helps some types of cells grow. Levels of IGF-1 at the high end of the normal range may influence the development of certain tumors and have been implicated in certain types of cancer. Again, it’s still unclear the full effect this has on humans.

Antibiotics in the Dairy Industry

Antibiotics are used as a last resort on sick cows, but have been historically used to promote a quicker growth of the animals (sources: 1, 2). While we can't comment on the US, it's worth noting that for dairy cows in Canada, the cow's milk must not be used for one week after the last dosage of the antibiotic.

The widespread use of antibiotics in animal agriculture is thought to be a contributing factor to antibiotic resistance in humans. Many antibiotics have xenoestrogen effects, meaning they can impact hormone levels in humans. This can aggravate conditions related to hormone imbalances, like PMS, acne, endometriosis, fibroids, etc. Dairy has also been associated with higher incidences of acne and we’ve seen this with some of our clients.

The Link Between Dairy and Cancer

While there is still some controversy around this topic (surprise, surprise!), there is research to show that high intakes of both calcium and dairy products may increase a man’s risk of prostate cancer. The biggest concern and risk factor appears to be when dairy/calcium are ingested in large amounts (2 glasses of milk or 2000mg or more of calcium/day) (sources: 1, 2).

This collection of prospective cohort studies (not a clinical trial), which tracks similar groups of people over a certain period of time, shows an association between high intakes of lactose (about 3 cups of milk/day) and a modestly higher risk of ovarian cancer, compared to women with the lowest lactose intake. While these amounts may seem high if you don’t drink milk, it wasn’t that long ago that Canada’s Food Guide recommended we consume that amount of dairy on a daily basis.

So, how do we interpret this information?

If you have a family history of reproductive cancers, have had cancer yourself, or have been tested for hormonal imbalances like estrogen dominance, it might be best to avoid cow’s dairy altogether.

If you are consuming dairy products, we suggest you don’t drink or eat more than a few cups a day, choose Certified Organic and grass fed and do some research into the farming practices of the company you’re buying from if you can. As we mentioned earlier in the article, choosing fermented forms, grass-fed butter and ghee (in moderation) or even choosing goat’s dairy instead, can benefit your gut health, however dairy is not necessary for a healthy gut and for some people, may do more harm than good.

Stay tuned for Pt. II next week where we will be discussing dairy and bone health.

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