According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the average American consumed 250 pounds of cow-derived dairy products in 2014. That’s a whole lot of milk, cheese and yogurt—and probably a lot of bubbly stomachs! But what if cow’s milk is furtively causing problems inside your body in ways that are less obvious than common symptoms like bloating and gas? Here are three unexpected health woes that might be intensified by your daily dairy intake.
While dairy doesn’t cause rheumatoid arthritis or other joint pain, it can certainly aggravate it. “Dairy is an ‘acidic,’ or inflammatory, food and may contribute to chronic inflammation within the body, which can exacerbate pain or symptoms,” says nutritional therapist Darshi Shah, INHC, CNT, author of the upcoming book Recover Immune and Gut Health Through Diet for Autoimmunity.
Inflammation, in the form of redness, swelling, pain or loss of function, is the immune system’s response to an irritant such as a virus, bacteria or foreign object. While it was previously thought that diet couldn’t impact the body’s inflammation levels, Shah believes otherwise, specifically because certain foods, like conventional cow’s milk, can cause leaky gut syndrome, which then triggers inflammation. “Typically, food is eaten and completely digested before it can pass a sieve-like barrier in our intestines. That is what’s normal,” she explains. “Leaky gut syndrome occurs when large, not completely digested, molecules of food pass through the intestinal barrier before they should.” The body sees these molecules as foreign particles and reacts with inflammation to fight them off. For people who already suffer from weak or degenerative joint tissue, the inflammation will likely aggravate these areas first, says Shah.
If you suffer from dark circles under your eyes despite getting an adequate amount of quality sleep every night, dairy could be to blame. Similar to joint pain, dark circles may be related to dairy-induced inflammation caused by a leaky gut. “The reason people get the circles is usually because there is congestion in the veins in the head,” says dermatologist Alan Dattner, MD, author of Radiant Skin from the Inside Out. “Inflammation in the sinuses prevents the blood from flowing back and forth as it should.” Blockage in your blood vessels shows up darker through the thin skin around the eyes.
Just like dairy digestion issues don’t mean you’re completely lactose intolerant, under-eye rings aren’t likely a sign you are truly allergic to milk, explains Tsippora Shainhouse, MD, a dermatologist and pediatrician in Beverly Hills. “The swelling and congestion may occur as part of an allergic or hypersensitivity response to environmental allergens, but could also be associated with a particular food, including dairy,” says Shainhouse, who adds that dairy sensitivity is a lot more common than a dairy allergy. According to allergy and immunology specialist Andrew Murphy, MD, a true “allergy” involves the immune system forming antibodies in reaction to an allergen, while a “sensitivity” is simply experiencing some kind of adverse reaction.
For years, we’ve been told that French fries and milkshakes don’t cause acne, but new studies are showing that what we eat does indeed impact our skin. A 2015 study in the Journal of Clinical, Cosmetic and Investigational Dermatology reports that simple carbs, saturated fats and, yep, dairy all promote acne. Cow’s milk contains increased levels of a certain hormone-like “growth factor” (a collection of proteins that stimulate the development of specific tissues injected into cows so they produce more milk than they would naturally). These growth factors up your body’s production of oil, which is fuel for P. acnes, the acne-causing bacteria that grows inside of pores. Both natural and added growth hormones could trigger hormonal acne flares in the skin, says Shainhouse.
One interesting note: Your acne might be worse if you drink skim milk. Studies have shown that a low-glycemic diet can improve acne, and skim milk has a higher glycemic index than whole milk. “Based on the data that’s out there now, I tend to take away milk for any of my patients with acne, especially those people who are consuming a lot,” says Dattner.
Should You Ditch Dairy?
Want to see if dairy is the culprit? Eliminate all dairy from your diet and see if your symptoms improve. You may then be able to slowly add back in some dairy, like yogurt or cheese, to see how your body handles it. Depending on your body, you may be able to tolerate cow dairy in certain forms or even raw, unpasteurized milk from grass-fed cows, which contains key enzymes and bacteria to help your body digest it (without causing leaky gut syndrome). You may also want to try goat’s milk or sheep’s milk, which has a slightly different makeup than cow dairy and may be better tolerated.
If you suspect your symptoms are due to a leaky gut, take steps to help heal your intestinal walls by adding in foods believed to repair the gut wall and rebalance your intestinal pH, such as bone broth, fermented vegetables and coconut oil. “Oftentimes, when leaky gut is healed and digestion is stabilized, dairy might be tolerated well,” says Shah. However, don’t be surprised if you need to ditch dairy for good—and don’t be worried you’ll be missing out on too much nutritionally. A lot of people don’t mesh well with dairy, according to dietitian nutritionist Beth Warren, MS, RD, CDN, who adds, “A lot of people get caught up in the controversy of it, but in reality, it’s not essential to the diet, and calcium and other key nutrients can be consumed through other nondairy sources.” Warren recommends that dairy-abstainers compensate by consuming more leafy green vegetables such as collards, bok choy and kale, as well as figs, sardines and tofu.
That said, Shainhouse does offer a caution: If you plan to eliminate dairy completely, do so with medical supervision. “Because dairy is an important, and often sole, source of calcium and vitamin D in growing children, teens and even adults, it is important to ensure adequate daily intake of calcium and vitamin D, either through dietary changes or supplements, if one decides to trial off of dairy.”
- Harvard School of Public Health: Calcium Sources in Food
- Journal of Clinical, Cosmetic and Investigational Dermatology: Linking diet to acne metabolomics, inflammation, and comedogenesis: an update
- USDA: Dairy products: Per capita consumption, United States
- Dairy Doing More: Milk Consumption
- Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology: Milk consumption and acne in teenaged boys
- American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: A low-glycemic-load diet improves symptoms in acne vulgaris patients