The Darkside of Dairy

Cows are racist. Post done.

Ok so maybe not. Actually come to think of it, our stereotypical cows are probably the farm yard animal displaying the most diversity (or Michael Jackson-esque existential crisis) in their black and white uniforms. If farm yard animals where capable of making such considerations that is……I think it may be wise if we abandon this train of thought now and never revisit it. Ever.

After that introduction of stellar standards I think it’s probably best that I just dive straight on in to the topic of the day.

The ‘free from’ fashion has definitely not failed to touch on dairy products, every coffee chain worth its salt (and sugar laden syrups……) is touting soya, coconut and almond milk for those of too delicate a constitution to consider marring their morning mocha with good old cow juice. Now before anyone misinterprets my tone I must reveal at this point that I am a firm nut and seed ‘mylk’ drinker (illness bla dairy intolerance bla bla) and that my sarcasm in the previous sentence was entirely directed at the coffee chains claiming to better their beverages in any way (go independent coffee shops yeah!). Again we can leave that thought there and plough (har har) on with some actual factual based bits.

So the rest of this post will sort of divide into two camps but that’s not to say that you must choose a path at this point and ignore the other one, the information in each is of relevance to all. The difference basically comes down to whether you know you can tolerate dairy products or not, there is the consideration that you may be more sensitive to dairy than you realise i.e. you may be suffering symptoms without realising but we will come to that later. I should also clarify that when I refer to dairy I am including all products made using cow, sheep and goat’s milks and a true dairy allergy is not the same as lactose intolerance. If someone is allergic to dairy it can either be the protein found within cow’s milk (Casein) or the sugar component (Lactose) that they react to and such they must avoid all milk based and derived products from all animal sources to avoid a systemic (full body) anaphylaxis reaction which can be life threatening.

Lactose intolerance on the other hand is a different reaction and is due to an inability to digest this sugar through a lack of enzymes. It is deemed as being a less severe reaction and the symptoms are more likely to be related to the digestive system, causing discomfort, bloating, diarrhoea etc although some will also experience eczema and conditions associated with excess mucous production like sinusitis (dairy is seen to ‘feed’ mucous producing membranes).

OK so with those distinctions made we can now get cracking properly.

For those who can tolerate them, high quality organic dairy products, especially live cheeses, yoghurt and fermented products like kefir, as well as full fat milk, are absolutely acceptable in my book. I stress the organic because like with all animal products this ensures the milk, cheese, yoghurt etc is free from antibiotics, artificial hormones, genetically modified organisms and all other chemical/artificial feeds or medications. It also ensures a higher welfare standard for the animals from which we are producing them (share the love and all). This actually betters our cause again as a happy animal will have lower stress hormones to pass on to us, something I think we can all appreciate as most of us produce enough of those already without also taking on the woes of a farm yard friend.

If we concentrate for a moment on the nutrient profile of milk specifically there has been a lot of research conducted into the difference between organic versus standard milk. I’ve spoken before about the importance of keeping inflammation under control within the body and one way we do this is by maintaining a beneficial omega 6:omega 3 ratio. The ideal would be 1:1 but we can comfortably go to 3-4:1 (omega 6:3). The problem is omega 6 is literally everywhere, the tag along at everyones party so to speak, so we need to be hyper efficient at ensuring that we’re getting our good omega 3 fats in to balance those inflammatory nuisances out. Organic milk has been shown to not only contain 25% less of the omega 6’s we don’t want, but up to 62% more of those brilliant omega 3’s too. The idea I’m trying to float here is something as simple as switching to organic milk can have a significantly positive impact on your health.

So if we pick organic products we can happily just continue on in our dairy based dalliances? Sort of……

If you suffer no ill consequences of your cheese consumption by all means continue, however are you sure you don’t? Many common symptoms can be attributed to a sensitivity to lactose (we aren’t really designed to keep drinking milk throughout our lives) and include flatulence, bloating, stomach rumbling, cramps and IBS style symptoms (fluctuating between constipation and diarrhoea). I will stress that I am not making a sweeping generalisation that everyone experiencing these issues is sensitive to lactose but as a start it may be an idea to swap in a couple of alternatives to take some of the pressure off our systems, give the waters a little test, see what happens.

Also as the majority of people tend to consume quite large quantities of these foods most days, cutting out a couple of portions shouldn’t be too much of a stretch…right? There is also the consideration that dairy products tend to be a relative nutrient dense food i.e. they pack a lot of calorific punch in a pretty small packet, contain relatively high levels of saturated fat and in some cases can also be quite salty so really should be considered a ‘moderation’ food anyway.

Some people may poo poo the idea as they ‘have always been fine with dairy’ so the development of any symptoms later in life couldn’t possibly be down to this staple food group! Well this isn’t strictly true.

Our digestive system is a wonderful thing, finely tuned and designed to protect us from all things nasty whilst also being the vital interface through which we harness our energy. If you imagine a shag pile carpet with all its tendrils, and then minimise it right down, and then imagine each tendril covered in another layer of even tinier protuberances you’ve got the structure of your intestines. This intricate wiggling maximises every last micron of space for maximum nutrient absorption which occurs through tiny gateways with the assistance of ever friendly enzymes. The great thing about enzymes is they catalyse all reactions within the body, speeding everything up and minimising the resources lost in these processes, the problem is they are also delicate creatures. Damage to the intestinal lining will not only decimate your absorption area but it’s also bye bye to your enzymes, this means no breakdown of your big sugary lactose molecules so off they toddle further down your digestive tract for your gut bacteria to have a field day on. End result? Gale force winds. Not ideal.

In fact there are many things in life that act to unbalance this beautifully oiled machine. There are the more obvious; microbes, bacteria, fungi and parasites which wend their way in and cause a bit of havoc. The problem with these is it’s not over when the symptoms die down, long after you’ve gone back to your daily life the remnants of whatever caused the acute condition can still be present and they will loiter in the lovely warm environment they have created for themselves. Then when you get those undigested food particles rolling on by they throw an even bigger party and you’ve got yourself a storm surge warning to go along with those gusts. This is where including probiotics and fermented foods into our general life comes in as we boost our levels of beneficial bacteria to help out compete the pesky invaders (or prevent them from getting in in the first place). They will also act to help protect the lining from damage in the first place.

So going back to how this damage can come about there are a couple of ways this can occur. The first is the effect of stress. Stress hormones have the wonderful effect of dampening all of our other bodily functions to divert every resource into surviving whatever situation we’ve fallen into. Top of the list? Our digestion. So not only do we get the lack of peristalsis (contractions of the intestinal muscles that push the food along) decreased digestive enzyme secretions and limited colonic blood flow, we also stop producing IgA. ‘Ig’ is shorthand for immunoglobulin which is a type of antibody and IgA is the one that we produce to circulate in all fluids (tears, sweat, mucus) to protect us. So where should we have the majority of our IgA? In the intestines of course!

If you think about it your digestive tract is basically the outside but on the inside and so the whole length is usually lubricated with mucus crammed full of these protective soldiers to stop unpleasant things taking hold anywhere. Drop some of life’s stressors in however and our IgA border force stop getting their supply drops and the gut lining is on its own. And as if it wasn’t enough to take away the sentries, ongoing high stress will also start to weaken tight junctions between the cells, cue the next onslaught…..

Yeasts and fungi are opportunistic organisms and many are found in manageable quantities within a healthy gut, however if given the chance they will go into reproductive overdrive (aided by additional sugary food sources…..!). At this point we can see colonisation within the intestinal tract and these little blighters burrow through the junctions between cells causing gaps in the lining. Many people will opt for antibiotics, antifungals or choose natural alternatives to eradicate the organism and the original symptoms will die down, good stuff. However we have left our defence system severely compromised as we have just exposed massive holes in a very fine sieve.

The intestinal membrane should act as a filter and prevent larger food molecules or pathogens from passing into the bloodstream but once these holes have appeared it’s anybody’s game. And this is where we link with the development of dairy (and other) sensitivities.

The bigger the molecule, the bigger the problem if it gets into circulation and dairy proteins are massive (on the microscopic scale). They are also most definitely not welcome so our immune system dives in and mounts a response. Now this is when we start to get too clever for our own good. Once we’ve been exposed to a foreign or harmful invader our clever little lymphocytes tag them as ‘non-self’ and remember how to get rid of them in case we come across them in future (by developing antibodies). So when we get particles of food travelling into our bloodstream the same thing happens, then when we next eat that food, hey presto our immune system thinks we’re being attacked by something horrible and we start getting symptoms.

Now for those who get to this stage it might be that they are unable to tolerate whatever foodstuff they have become sensitive to in future, I say might as it is possible to follow a gut healing protocol like I will now go into but there would also need to be further work on modulating the immune system and that is an entirely other chapter for another day. If you’re just getting the IBS style issues then the path to salvation is a little less long winded. First of all you would need to come off all the dairy to allow your body to breathe and then you can get cracking with some of the following.

Many of you will have heard of the recent craze for bone broths and for good reason. The wonderful thing about them is they contain high quantities of glutamine (an amino acid) which acts to re-tighten those junctions between the enterocytes (fancy name for intestinal cells). If you are looking to ‘heal you gut’ you need to be sipping back a good 250ml cup of the stuff a day (made from grass fed, organic beef or veal marrow bones or chicken carcasses slow cooked for 12-24 hours). Glutamine supplements will also do the trick but I would advise you speak to a qualified practitioner before beginning any form of supplementation as they can advise you on relevant dosages, clean brands and check any individual contraindications. Returning to food the other potent gut restorer is fresh cabbage juice. 1 litre of juice a day over a period of 2 weeks was shown to completely heal peptic ulceration and from personal experience I can vouch that it is actually quite pleasant on the tastebuds! I would then also include a good strength probiotic and some fermented foods to get everything back into balance and gradually start reintroducing the dairy to see how things are doing. Again I would stress that doing this under the guidance of a practitioner is always a good idea, it’s what we do after all!

I will just interject here with some personal insight to say that I was probably the biggest dairy product enthusiast you could imagine, not in the cream and cakes sense but an absolute connoisseur of all things savoury/cheese centred. I have not eaten a morsel of anything related to cow, sheep or goat’s milk in any guise for going on 6 years now and I can tell you it’s no hardship. There are so many ways to recreate the dishes you think will die without dairy and an entire other realm of flavours and combinations that appear when you take it out of the equation. I am not suggesting everyone should choose to eliminate it entirely (I think I’d end up with some exceptionally angry farmers on my doorstep!) but I would encourage an open mind and fresh interest in adding some variation to your diet and experimenting with new things.

These are a small handful of my favourites to get you started on this train of thought but as all of my recipes are dairy free (sometimes I do include variations containing dairy but these are always stated) I would advise you also head on over to the recipe index and have a good look at the rest! 🙂

Cashew ‘Cream Cheese’

Fresh Almond Milk

Cacao & Coconut Semifreddo