By: Dr. Shawna Darou, ND
My motivation to write this article came from multiple food intolerance test results arriving for people with known inflammatory and autoimmune conditions, all of which had extremely high dairy intolerance, specifically to casein. Dairy can be extremely inflammatory and aggravate health conditions, such as: eczema, asthma, acne, mood disorders, autism, schizophrenia, many autoimmune conditions, especially type 1 diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease and more.
Most of us grew up with the idea that milk is an important part of our diets, providing protein, calcium and vitamin D. As a naturopathic doctor with more than 10 years experience, I would now link dairy consumption to a whole range of health struggles. There are many other ways to get adequate nutrition without dairy in your diet, even for small children and in most cases the risk is consuming dairy is not worth the benefit.
How does dairy become inflammatory?
The main milk proteins are casein and whey. Casein is the most abundant overall, and their are two genetic variations of casein depending on the type of milk you drink: casein A1 from most types of cow’s milk, and casein A2 from goat and sheep’s milk. Casein A1 is usually the most problematic. Casein A1 is broken down into a harmful compound called beta casomorphin-7 (BCM7). This compound is morphine-related, meaning it can affect your mood and cause cravings for dairy products. BCM7 oxidizes cholesterol at a high rate, linking it to heart disease, it creates inflammatory reactions in the small intestines, changes hormonal function, and the immune system.
Signs of dairy intolerance in children
The most common signs of a dairy intolerance beginning in a child are either recurrent infections such as ear infections or tonsillitis, or eczema. In both cases, we are seeing signs of immune system stress. Interestingly, children often ‘grow out’ of these issues by the time they are school age, but I would argue that the dairy intolerance remains but causing different symptoms. These same children may develop asthma, environmental allergies, digestive upset, mood disorders or even an autoimmune condition such as type 1 diabetes.
Signs of dairy intolerance in adults
A very common misconception with dairy intolerance is that it has to cause digestive symptoms. This may happen, but not always! Dairy intolerance can cause vague issues such as fatigue, insomnia, mood swings; it may be related to chronic sinus congestion and frequent colds; and is often associated with skin conditions such as acne and eczema.
Ear infections, antibiotics and type 1 diabetes
One of the most clear links that I have seen with severe dairy (casein) intolerance is the following progression. Chronic ear infections as a small child, treated with multiple antibiotics and the development of type 1 diabetes. I believe that it is a progression of the same immune issue. Let me explain how it works:
A milk-loving child develops recurrent ear infections. Chronic ear infections are a big red flag for dairy intolerance, in fact stopping dairy intake in these children will usually resolve them. These infections are treated with many rounds of antibiotics, and he/she may have tubes in their ears. The frequent antibiotics cause further gastrointestinal irritation, which in combination with with the dairy intolerance create intestinal permeability or ‘leaky gut syndrome’. The leaky gut then allows inflammatory dairy proteins to pass into the blood and lymphatic system, which activates the immune system.
Scientific studies have linked high levels of antibodies to bovine beta-casein with type 1 diabetes (1,2,3,4). Unfortunately, we are seeing this link too late. I suspect that we could prevent diabetes in these children if the dairy intolerance was identified early during the ear infection phase.
Should you consider a dairy-free diet?
If you suffer from any type autoimmune condition, inflammatory bowel disorder, skin conditions such as acne and eczema, recurrent colds, infections or chronic congestion, I would suggest investigating the possible link to dairy products. You could test for food intolerances to identify a casein intolerance (most accurate), or do a 6 week strict dairy-free trial to look for changes in symptoms. Cow’s milk dairy products are a significant aggravating factor for many people, and also something that is fairly easy to modify. Many women’s biggest concern in giving up dairy products is calcium and bone density. There are many non-dairy ways to increase calcium in your diet, from fortified non-dairy milks to leafy greens, almonds and sesame seeds. And for more information about bone density, read here: http://darouwellness.com/myth-calcium-bone-density/.
I hope this article has been informative to you, and provided you with a potential tool to improve your health and lower inflammation.
1. Monetini L, Cavallo MG, et al. Antibodies to bovine beta-casein in diabetes and other autoimmune disease. Horm Metab Res. 2002 Aug;34(8):455-9.
2. Saukkonen, T, Virtanen, SM, et al. Significance of cow’s milk protein antibodies as risk factor for childhood IDDM: interactions with dietary cow’s milk intake and HLA-DQB1 genotype. Diabetologia. 1998 Jan;41(1):72-8.
3. Elliot RB, Harris DP, et al. The beta-casein A1 protein variant of cow’s milk may contribute to increased risk of diabetes type 1. Diabetologia. 1999 Mar;42(3):292-6.
4. Virtanen SM, Saukkonen T, et al. Diet, cow’s milk protein antibodies and the risk of IDDM in Finnish children. Childhood Diabetes in Finland Study Group. Diabetologia. 1994 Apr;37(4):381-7.