Dairy and Inflammation: Should you go dairy free?
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Autoimmune & Inflammation

What You Probably Didn’t Know About Dairy And Inflammation

November 4, 2020

On the fence about whether you should be eating dairy or not? The decision may come down to how it affects inflammatory markers in your body.

Dairy is one of those big bad wolves, along with gluten, that tends to get villainized. Many people cut it out of their diets without really understanding how it affects them. Historically, the biggest argument against eating dairy has been that it’s inflammatory, and we know that chronic inflammation is linked to most chronic conditions with which nearly 125 million Americans are living with. But here’s the thing—dairy isn’t inflammatory in everyone, newer research shows.

Milking the nutritional truth out of the research around dairy is, ironically, harder than you’d think. We’re diving into exactly what you need to know about the effects of dairy on the body and the connection between dairy and inflammation.

Wait, what. I thought dairy was good for you.

You probably grew up hearing that milk is good for your bones and yogurt is good for your gut. It’s not entirely wrong. Milk contains calcium and vitamin D, which are good for your bones. Yogurt contains probiotics, which are good for your gut. It’s this line of thinking and the fact that dairy is readily accessible that has likely led dairy to be a staple in many diets.

In developed countries, milk and dairy products make up about 14% of overall caloric intake in the diet and in 2013 alone, world milk production was predicted to be about 784 million tons according to The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Despite the mass production and consumption of dairy, allergies and sensitivities to milk are common.

Lactose intolerant? It’s highly possible. 

Lactose intolerance later in life is extremely prevalent with approximately 65 percent of the human population at large having a reduced ability to digest lactose. Rates of lactose intolerance can vary greatly between geographic regions, including incidence of less than 10% in Northern Europe to as high as 95% in parts of Asia and Africa.

Those with lactose intolerance are unable to digest dairy well because they do not produce adequate amounts of the enzyme lactase which is required to break down lactose, a sugar found in milk. As a result, they experience major gastrointestinal symptoms such as abdominal pain, bloating, flatulence, nausea, and diarrhea beginning as soon as 30 minutes to 2 hours after consumption.

The severity of dairy allergy symptoms can range, which is why many people with only milk allergy symptoms simply ignore them and continue to eat dairy, while people with more severe dairy allergy symptoms may avoid dairy or take lactose pills to help them break down dairy. Furthermore, some lactose intolerant people can tolerate fermented dairy like yogurt or high-fat dairy products like butter without issue. Despite how common it is though, lactose intolerance isn’t the only reason you may be bothered by dairy.

Dairy allergies and sensitivities, oh my!

If you produce the lactase enzyme but still react poorly to dairy, you likely have a milk protein allergy, experiencing an allergic response to one or both of the proteins found in dairy—casein and whey. This type of dairy allergy is most commonly seen in children but can also affect adults and may cause symptoms such as swelling of the mouth, lips or throat, skin reactions such as hives or rashes, or increased nasal congestion and mucus production. People can also experience digestive issues such as loose stools, diarrhea, vomiting, and/or abdominal cramping.

Since casein has a similar molecular structure to the wheat protein, gluten, 50% of people who have celiac disease also have a casein intolerance. Simply put, if you negatively react to gluten, it’s more likely that you’ll also react to milk and dairy products because milk proteins can commonly cross-react with gluten in the intestine.

Additionally, if you have increased intestinal permeability, or “leaky gut”, it is more likely that your immune system may respond to potentially allergenic components in milk and dairy products. If you have small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) you might also negatively react to dairy and notice gas, bloating and other digestive symptoms. Going dairy free can often help manage these symptoms, at least until the condition resolves.

Does dairy cause inflammation?

If you have a dairy allergy, lactose intolerance, IBS, SIBO, gluten intolerance or intestinal permeability, there is evidence that dairy can promote an inflammatory response when consumed. Additionally, research supports that there is a positive link between milk consumption and the occurrence of acne and potentially eczema. For Parsley Health members with any of these conditions, we usually recommend following a dairy free diet to help alleviate symptoms.

However, overall research does not support the notion that dairy is inflammatory for people who do not have any of these conditions.

In fact, a 2017 review that evaluated 52 clinical studies, concluded that dairy generally has anti-inflammatory effects, except in people with known allergies or intolerances.

Additional studies have found that people who regularly consumed cheese and fermented milk products were actually at lower risk of heart disease, heart attacks, and strokes (all diseases that have been linked to increased levels of chronic inflammation).

For Parsley Health members that do not have known allergies or intolerances, that doesn’t mean it’s a free-for-all on dairy, though.

Not all dairy is created equal

While you don’t need dairy in your diet, if you tolerate dairy well, choosing high quality, full-fat, organic, pasture-raised dairy that’s preferably from grass-fed cows, goat or sheep is your best bet. That’s right, if you’re going to eat dairy, you need to be smarter about it (sorry, that means no cheese whiz). Here’s why:

Contrary to previous understanding, full-fat dairy has shown to be more beneficial than low-fat varieties. One study found that individuals who ate greater amounts of full-fat dairy had a 69% lower risk of cardiovascular death than those who ate the least and another research article concluded that those who consumed greater amounts of low-fat dairy products had higher rates of obesity and greater risk of developing cardiovascular disease and diabetes—likely because of the higher glycemic index and added sugars in low-fat milk products.

Additionally, a randomized trial in men found that full-fat milk and high-fat dairy products such as cheese and butter specifically did not significantly impact or increase inflammatory response in study participants. 

The source that dairy comes from is also a major factor to consider. Conventional dairy products are made from milk that contains hormones, chemicals, and antibiotics which on their own may have negative consequences to human health, although clinical research on the topic is limited. Therefore, opting for organic and pasture-raised varieties from grass-fed cows is your best bet if you’re going to eat dairy.

Dairy products from goat and sheep are often better tolerated because they contain lower levels of milk proteins since they come from smaller animals. Goat and sheep’s milk also contain the more easily digestible A2 beta-casein, which is a big part of the reason they’re less likely to cause gastrointestinal symptoms and inflammatory responses when consumed. For an added bonus, goat and sheep are also less likely to be factory farmed and therefore, have reduced amounts of added chemicals, hormones and antibiotics in their feed and environments in comparison to cattle.

The takeaway:

  • Research indicates that while dairy may have anti-inflammatory benefits in some individuals, type, and quality are key determinants in assessing dairy’s role in inflammation. 
  • Knowing whether you have a dairy intolerance of any kind can help you decide if dairy is right for your diet.
  • Experimenting with a 30-day dairy free diet followed by a formal reintroduction trial can help you to more clearly assess any potential negative reactions to dairy (i.e. digestive issues, skin reactions, increased mucus production) 
  • You can get tested for dairy intolerances, like we do here at Parsley Health, and work with your doctor and health coach to develop the best nutrition plan for your unique needs.

Parsley Health is the only medical practice that leverages personalized testing with whole body treatments.

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