Milk is supposed to be a natural health promoting drink. Why then are some health practitioners recommending cutting down or even eliminating milk?
In this article I will explore some of the issues around milk so that a more informed decision may be made about whether to include, reduce or eliminate milk from the diet.
Milk has been consumed by many cultures and is the source of many dairy products like, cheese, yoghurt, butter and cream. Whole milk is a good source of protein and fat. It contains vitamins A, D, E and the B complex vitamins. Milk also contains substantial amounts of the minerals calcium and phosphorous with smaller amounts of magnesium and zinc. Trace amounts of the minerals manganese, selenium, copper and iodine may also be present in milk.
The nutrient profile of milk is dependent on many factors like the season, farming practices and what processing techniques have been applied to the milk. It is also important to consider state of health as this will also determine whether milk will be a challenging food for the body.
I will discuss each of these issues in further detail:
It is important to understand that if hormones or antibiotics have been routinely administered to the cow then these substances will eventually make their way into the milk.
In the UK, about two thirds of all milk comes from pregnant cows; the rest comes from cows that have recently given birth. Due to the practice of milking pregnant cows, the cow has to be held in a pregnant state by means of a cocktail of different growth factors and hormones. This results in elevated levels of hormones like oestrogen and other growth hormone being present within the milk. When these hormones are ingested through drinking milk they can trigger hormone responses within the body like growth.
About a third of the entire UK herd of dairy cows at any one time are diseased with excruciatingly painful mastitis. This condition makes them produce copious amounts of pus from their udders which finds its way into their milk. To try to control infections and disease, cows are regularly given antibiotics, which eventually make their way into the milk. Consumption of antibiotics through regular milk production will have a negative impact on gut flora and may destroy beneficial gut bacteria leaving room for harmful micro-organisms to grow and interfere with digestion.
Milk and dairy products produced in the United States - unless otherwise labelled - may come from cows routinely injected with a genetically engineered hormone called recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH) which is also known as recombinant Bovine Somatotropin (rBST). This engineered hormone works by interfering with a cow’s natural physiology. Drug manufacturers claim that injections of rBGH will cause an increase of up to 20% in milk production. However rBGH has been shown to increase disease rates in cows and a significant body of scientific data has linked it to possible increases in cancer and antibiotic resistance in humans. The injection of rBGH in cows elevates a powerful growth hormone called Insulin-like Growth Factor-1 (IGF-1), which also stimulates growth within humans.
The hormone IGF-1 has been identified in numerous studies to increase breast, prostate, colon, lung and other cancers in humans. Scientific studies suggest that IGF-1 survives pasteurisation as well as digestion and enters the bloodstream in sufficient quantities to potentially trigger increased cancer rates.
At the moment, recombinant bovine growth hormone has been banned from use within the UK.
Pasture Fed Animals
Research has shown that meat, eggs and dairy products from animals raised on pastures are better for health. When compared with grain-fed animals, they offer more beneficial fats as well as being richer in antioxidants. For example, grass-fed cows produce milk containing significantly more omega 3 and vitamin E than cows fed pre-dominantly grains like corn or soya beans. By feeding on grass these animals are able to access omega-3s formed in the chloroplasts of green leaves. Sixty percent of the fatty acids in grass are omega-3s.
Most modern diets contain significantly more omega 6 than omega 3 essential fatty acids. At the cell level, omega 3 promotes cell membrane flexibility whereas omega 6 promotes membrane rigidity. The right balance is therefore required for structural integrity of the cell membrane. If the diet is biased towards omega 6 intake then over time this promotes stiffening of the cell membranes which in turn interferes with the movement of nutrients and wastes to and from the cells.
An imbalance with essential fatty acid intake will also have a knock on effect on prostaglandin production. Prostaglandins are hormone like substances produced by the cells. Excess dietary omega 6 can trigger prostaglandin production, which promote inflammatory reactions within the body and imbalances within the nervous and endocrine systems.
Farming practices are therefore significant factors influencing both the digestibility and nutrient profile of milk. Choose dairy products from pasture fed animals as these foods will provide a more balanced intake of omega 6 and omega 3 fatty acids. Avoid consuming milk if it comes from cows reared with the use of growth hormones, antibiotics, herbicides or pesticides.
This is a process whereby milk is heated to destroy harmful micro-organisms. Pasteurisation counteracts poor hygiene within milk production. The downside of this practice is that it can destroy any beneficial bacteria which may have been present in the milk. Heating also destroys valuable enzymes found within milk designed to support digestion of milk when consumed. For example lactase is an enzyme found within milk which helps to break down the milk sugar known as lactose. Enzymes like lactase are damaged by the pasteurisation process.
Valuable heat-sensitive nutrients like the B vitamins are also damaged during the heating process, which impairs the nutrient content significantly.
Calves fed pasteurised milk do not thrive and usually die within six weeks! This illustrates how pasteurisation significantly degrades the nutritional quality of milk.
Other heat processing techniques such as sterilisation, ultra-heat processing will also destroy valuable heat sensitive nutrients and enzymes found within milk.
You may be worried by the concept of consuming non-pasteurised milk which is termed ‘raw’. There are many nutritional benefits to raw milk but strict hygienic practices must be employed at all stages of milk production.
In this modern processing technique the milk fat has been reduced in size and dispersed within the milk so that it does not form a thick creamy layer on the top. Homogenisation makes the milk appear better and does away with shaking the milk bottle in order to mix in the cream.
However the downside to homogenisation is that it causes the fat globules in milk to be fragmented into small, compact molecules that will not regroup. Not only do these intense molecules of fat refuse to regroup, they also resist digestion and manage to directly enter the bloodstream unaltered via the small intestine. As the tiny undigested fat globules pass directly into the blood vessels, they can contribute towards a fatty build up in the blood vessels. The small undigested fat globules irritate the blood vessels, which in turn promotes inflammation which over time can damage blood vessels.
Removal of Milk Fat
Skimmed & semi-skimmed milk have had the milk fat removed. However it is the milk fat which contains the beneficial fat-soluble vitamins A, D, and E, The fat soluble vitamins are vital in order for the body to make use of other nutrients found within the rest of the milk. For example in order for the body to utilise calcium found within milk it will need an adequate supply of vitamin D which is naturally found within the milk fat.
Fortification of skimmed and semi-skimmed milk with synthetic fat soluble vitamins may be done to resolve this issue but they are chemically not the same. For example, full fat milk contains pre-formed vitamin A (retinol) and pre-formed vitamin D (D3). Fortified milk on the other hand usually contains pro-retinol (beta carotene) which requires a conversion process within the body in order to be converted to pre-formed vitamin A. This conversion is dependent on other factors within the body and may/may not fully take place. Similarly fortified vitamin D (also known as D2) will require a conversion process to D3 which again depends on other factors within the body.
The vitamin A and D fortified versions of skimmed and semi-skimmed milks do not contain fat soluble vitamins in similar ratios to the naturally occurring ones found in whole milk. This may cause imbalances in how these nutrients react within the body or toxicity.
Calcium and Magnesium balance
Milk is naturally high in calcium but is low in magnesium. In the body one of the many functions of calcium and magnesium is to ensure that muscles and nerves work in a balanced way. In general terms, calcium triggers muscle and nerve contraction and magnesium triggers muscle and nerve relaxation.
Consuming lots of milk without the right amounts of magnesium in the diet can over time trigger imbalances in nerve and muscle functioning.
Magnesium also helps to keep calcium in a soluble state, when magnesium levels are low, calcium can precipitate out of solution and contribute to nerve and muscle tissue hardening.
Mucous, bloating, gas and spasms
Many individuals do not have the required enzymes in place to fully digest milk. For example, the enzyme lactase is required to digest lactose, which is a naturally occurring sugar found in milk. Consequently consuming milk results in toxicity from undigested milk, which in turn irritates the lining of the digestive system. The body responds to this irritation by increasing its protective layer of mucous. However over time a thickening layer of mucous becomes a barrier to nutrients and will also encourage the growth of micro-organisms. This situation can result in symptoms of intestinal bloating, gas and spasm.
The increased flow of excess mucous can become thickened and block the smaller channels within the lymphatic system. This often occurs in the smaller lymphatic vessels of the ear, nose and throat resulting in congestion and symptoms of blocked nose, ears and excessive phlegm in the throat.
Issues of poor digestibility may be resolved once the conditions within the body to assimilate milk have been improved. Cutting out milk and following a cleansing nutritional program will help to clear up excessive mucous congestion and symptoms of bloating and spasms. Once the body is in a more balanced state small amounts of dairy such as organic goat’s yoghurt may be slowly introduced.
Are there alternatives to cow’s milk?
Alternatives to cow’s milk may include milks made from nuts like almond milk if there are no nut allergies. Coconut milk and oat milk are also suitable substitutes for replacing cow’s milk. I do not promote the use of soya milk as it has a negative impact on the body affecting nervous and endocrine system functioning.
Certain individuals find that goat’s milk is easier to digest than cow’s milk. Switching from cow’s milk to goat’s milk often results in symptoms of mucous, bloating, spasm or eczema clearing up.
Unlike cow's milk there is no need to homogenize goat's milk as the fat globules in goat's milk are much smaller and will remain suspended in solution whereas the fat globules in cow's milk tend to separate to the surface.
Like cow’s milk look for raw goat’s milk from a clean source which have been grass fed. Milk which has been heat treated, homogenised or containing contaminants should be avoided and suitable alternatives used.