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The Dairy Dilemma: The Latest Research on Milk, Mood and Inflammation [Is dairy causing my panic attacks?]

Posted Aug 22 2012 10:38am


You can’t swing a cat in a barn these days without hitting some new report out on the beleaguered dairy industry. Not that I’m endorsing cat swinging. Or swinging objects in barns. In fact, I can’t even endorse dairy because – have you heard? – 60% of adults can’t digest milk . And the bad news keeps rolling in: all of that stuff we’ve been told about low-fat dairy aiding in weight loss and strengthening bones and giving us a healthy smile? Aside from getting Heidi Klum to dress up as the world’s hottest milkmaid, all those claims are just not true, so says the new research which contradicts the old research – the old research that was all funded by the dairy industry.

You remember this ad campaign? All lies.

This news greatly concerns me because I happen to love my dairy products. Unfortunately I’ve discovered that they may not love me back. You may recall I’ve been struggling with anxiety/panic attacks with ever-increasing frequency over the past 6 months or so. Several weeks ago I tried going gluten-free on the advice of my Life Time Fitness * genius nutritionist Darryl Bushard who thought that inflammation from eating gluten might be jacking with my mood. After three weeks with no gluten my panic attacks were still worsening – to the point where a week ago I had a full-fledged incident involving vomiting, diarrhea, uncontrollable shaking and heart palpitations so badly that several years ago it would have sent me to the ER. Fortunately I now can recognize it for what it is and that it will pass but nevertheless, it was excruciating. In consulting again with my nutritionist I assumed he’d tell me to take out sugar (the white devil bedevils me!) but he surprised me. His instruction? “Try taking out dairy.”

Dairy? Is related to anxiety?!

My sister, my non-expert source on food sensitivities — she has one child with an autoimmune disorder and several others with marked sensitivities so she’s been to this rodeo before — agreed with him. “You already know you are an HSP (highly sensitive person) and research has linked HSPs to a higher incidence of food sensitivities, particularly gluten.” (Note: I could not find this study as of press time but I’m still looking. HSP research is a pretty new field…) Then she added, “And my doctors told us that dairy and gluten issues often go together.”

This is Dr. Daniel Kalish has to say :

“Lactase, a specialized enzyme that aids digestion of lactose in milk products is usually lacking in people with sub-clinical gluten intolerance. Lactase breaks down lactose or milk sugar in the same way sucrase enzymes breaks down sugar or sucrose. Damage to the architecture of the intestinal wall and the subsequent decrease in enzymes for lactose and sucrose digestion leads to problems in digesting dairy products such as cheese, ice cream, and all types of milk products.

This enzyme deficiency is why people with sub-clinical gluten intolerance need to avoid pasteurized cow’s milk products. As the villi on the intestinal lining heal from a gluten free diet, most individuals will be able to tolerate raw or unpasteurized dairy products again in nine months to a year. In other people, there will be a more or less permanent sensitivity to dairy products.

However, in the initial two months of eliminating gluten, it is absolutely required to avoid all milk dairy products, because they will inflame the intestine lining just like gliadin does and prevent healing. This includes the complete elimination of pasteurized cow’s milk products such as cheese, yogurt, cottage cheese, and milk. Goat’s milk yogurt and goat or sheep’s milk cheeses such as feta cheese and others are acceptable alternatives. In this instance, eggs are not considered as dairy products. Raw or unpasteurized dairy products are healing foods for the damaged GI tract lining.”

This was kind of a shock for me because while giving up gluten was surprisingly easy for me – I don’t normally eat bread, crackers, pretzels, boxed cereals etc anyhow – dairy has always been my love. “Cheese is my chocolate” is one of my fave catchphrases.  Not to mention that taking out whey as a protein source leaves me with soy, a food of dubious health benefits that really does give me intestinal issues. And occasionally I do really like a cold glass of milk, much to the horror of the vegan community who like to point out ad nauseum that humans are the only animals to drink milk past infancy and/or drink the milk of other mammals – a fact which isn’t true despite being repeated a whole lot. Many animals will drink milk of any variety if they can get their paws on it (What do you think all those cats you were just swinging around were doing in the barn in the first place?) We just happen to be the only animals who farm. In addition to drinking the stuff, I eat it nearly every day in its fermented state as my homemade yogurt and as any variety of cheese. Let’s not even talk about my ice cream addiction.

Aside from my culinary predilections, however, there remain two important pieces of information 1) The 60% of adults as described earlier who can’t digest milk.
2) Nobody past infancy needs milk to survive.
Taken together, this makes me wonder if I’m not too enamored of my moo juice.

So what exactly does an “inability to digest milk” look like? According to research, the ability to metabolize lactose, the sugar in milk, is an aberration.

It’s not normal. Somewhat less than 40% of people in the world retain the ability to digest lactose after childhood. The numbers are often given as close to 0% of Native Americans, 5% of Asians, 25% of African and Caribbean peoples, 50% of Mediterranean peoples and 90% of northern Europeans. Sweden has one of the world’s highest percentages of lactase tolerant people .

Being able to digest milk is so strange that scientists say we shouldn’t really call lactose intolerance a disease, because that presumes it’s abnormal. Instead, they call it lactase persistence , indicating what’s really weird is the ability to continue to drink milk.

Being of mostly northern European descent, I would have thought that makes me one of the fortunate mutants. And yet if anxiety is a symptom of dairy intolerance then sign me up to get rid of it. So I gave up dairy a week ago. And I have not had one single incidence of anxiety since.

Let me repeat that: NO anxiety in a week where I was having it to some extent nearly every day for the past several months.

This is huge for me. Honestly it’s too early in the experiment for me to conclude that taking out gluten AND dairy is the magic key. So many other factors like stress levels, hormones, the seasons and other variables play a part in an anxiety disorder. Plus, I’ve always been an anxious person. But this sense of calm I’ve felt this past week is amazing enough to make me want to continue on with this. I love ice cream, yes, but I LOVE not have panic attacks way more. And it’s this mindset that has made all the difference. Instead of feeling deprived when all my friends ate pizza last night, I truly only felt grateful that I knew enough to avoid it and hopefully avoid the intestinal problems I always have after eating pizza. Seriously, this was like the opposite of an eating disorder type of restriction, if that makes any sense. I wasn’t depriving myself of something I loved. I was loving myself by keeping my mind and body safe.

Anyhow, while milk may not be good for me (maybe, perhaps) the question of whether or not milk is even all that good for anyone is far from settled and if you do decide to partake you open up a whole other can of research worms. Apparently the recommendations to eat and drink only low-fat dairy products are all based on faulty research. Those of us who grew up in the ’90s are still trying to wrap our brains around the fact that eating fat does not make us fat but nowhere is that more true than with dairy. According to researchers, the most valuable vitamins in milk – like the A & D that must be added back into skim milk – are all fat soluble. So by drinking your milk skimmed you’re just peeing out all those precious vitamins that it was fortified with. The solution according to science is to eat and drink your milk in the least-processed form available which would be non-homogenized, non-pasteurized whole milk, cheese and yogurt. (Preferably hormone-free, grass-fed and – finished too, while we’re at it.) And of course, for a lot of people the decision whether or not to eat dairy is a moral one.

For now however, I’m dairy free and crossing my fingers that the panic attacks stay away. Could it really be this simple? Really?

Do you love dairy or hate it? Do you have any dietary restrictions due to health issues? If you avoid it – why? Anyone else find a link between being a highly sensitive person in general and gluten/dairy intolerance?

*Full disclosure: There has been some confusion about my relationship with Life Time Fitness. They are not now, nor have they ever, paid me for a review, advertising, blog post or article. The services I’ve received from them – like the nutritional counseling, personal training and metabolic testing – I’ve gotten for free as I was writing about those things for Shape.com. I’ve continued to write about them (and workout at their gym) because – and I can’t overstate this – I freaking LOVE them. Truly. My experience with their gyms has been nothing short of amazing and they have some of the smartest experts on staff that I have ever met. So I do try to throw a lot of love their way. But it’s only because I adore them! They are not paying me to say this.

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