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By Nadia Marshall
This is a copy of Nadia’s Nutrition Column for Nova Magazine, published in January 2014
After another festive season of excess and indigestion, perhaps one of your New Year’s resolutions is to go dairy-free? But before you do, let’s consider the issue of dairy digestion…
A large percentage of humans around the world have been consuming dairy products for thousands and thousands of years. So why after so many years of beneficial nourishment from our four legged friend, the cow, do we suddenly have an epidemic of people finding dairy products difficult to tolerate?
Humans were not originally designed to drink any milk indefinitely, whether from a cow, a goat or even a human. All milk contains a sugar called lactose (a disaccharide made up of galactose and glucose) that is rather difficult to digest. It is too big to fit through the gut wall as is so needs to be broken down into its component parts by the enzyme lactase, which is secreted by cells in the small intestine. If lactase is deficient, the lactose travels through to the large intestine where it is digested by gas-producing bacteria instead, leading to a variety of unpleasant symptoms of indigestion - abdominal cramping, bloating, flatulence and diarrhoea (1). Nasty!
Humans are born with a genetic switch for the production of lactase - it is switched on when we are babies and switched off between the ages of about 3-5 years. But this all changed about 7,500 years ago in Europe with a handy mutation among a population of cattle herders. The switch was flicked and it stayed on. So beneficial was this mutation that it spread, rapidly. And it wasn’t a singular incident. Similar mutations also occurred in three separate locations in Africa at around the same time (2).
To this day, the closer you are to the original sites of mutation, the greater the incidence of ‘lactose persistence’. Some 99% of Dutch people, 95% of Swedes and British people, 88% of European Americans, 84% of Russians, 80% of Indians and 80% of African Tulsi are able to digest lactose into adulthood. As you move further away from the sites of the mutations, the percentage drops to about 50% in Italian, Spanish, French and Arab populations, and to only 5% percent in China and 2% in Thailand. In Australia, 96% of Europeans are lactose tolerant (3).
But lactose intolerance comes in three guises: ‘Primary lactose intolerance’ means you’re not a descendent of cattle herders and your switch was never permanently turned on; ‘Secondary lactose intolerance’ means your switch was turned on but has been damaged through some sort of small intestine injury; and ‘Congenital lactase deficiency’ means your switch was never turned on so you weren’t even able to digest your mother’s milk (a rare autosomal recessive disorder) (1).Technically, if you breastfed without any problems, your ancestors have a history of drinking milk, and if you haven’t suffered from severe intestinal injury then you should be capable of digesting dairy products. But many people aren’t. And many others become less tolerant as they get older. So something else is going on. But what? Let’s explore a few of the main issues…
Modern dairy products
Lactose is water-soluble so it is found in the watery parts of dairy products rather than in the fat. As a result, all low fat or reduced fat dairy products contain more lactose than their full fat counterparts.
Traditionally produced yoghurt contains lactose but also lactase produced by bacterial cultures so is usually tolerable, while commercial brands have much higher quantities of lactose. Traditionally manufactured cheeses also have low levels of lactose due to the fermentation and ageing techniques involved, while commercially produced cheeses lack these lactose
reducing steps (1).
Modern milk also generally contains more lactose than the stuff we drank even a few decades ago. It is usually low fat or reduced fat and often contains permeate (unless labelled as ‘permeate free’). Permeate is a watery by-product of the cheese production process made up of lactose, water and vitamins. The food producers say they add it to their milk to maintain product consistency, while the dairy farmers say they do it to drive down the price (permeate costs 15c a litre while milk costs 50c a litre)(4). Whatever the reason, the addition of permeate also increases the amount of lactose in our milk.
Modern milk is also usually homogenised, a process that makes the fatty aspect of milk homogenous with the watery aspect so the milk cream no longer separates out of solution. Some researchers believe that homogenisation can increase milk’s ability to cause allergic reactions due to restructuring of the fat globule membranes which tend to incorporate more casein and whey proteins post-homogenisation (5). Other known effects on milk quality include increased viscosity, lowered heat stability, increased sensitivity to light-triggered oxidation and less pronounced milk flavor (6).
But dairy products aren’t the only source of our lactose consumption. Lactose is actually used as a commercial additive in many non-dairy foods, including processed meats, gravy powder, margarines, sliced breads, breakfast cereals, potato chips, protein supplements and sauces, as well as medications and other processed foods! Whenever ‘lactoserum, whey, milk solids or modified milk ingredients’ are listed in the ingredients, the product contains lactose (1). So even if we’re producing plenty of lactase, if may not be enough for the amount of lactose we’re eating unknowingly!
Dairy preparation and combining
From a Western perspective there aren’t any rules around how to eat dairy. But from an Ayurvedic perspective, dairy products are specifically chosen, prepared and combined with other foods in a way that makes them lighter and easier to digest and assimilate. First of all, the quality of our dairy products is very important. We should choose traditionally prepared yoghurts and cheeses, if possible, and should only buy organic full cream milk that is unhomogenised and permeate-free. But sourcing good quality dairy is just the beginning…
In Ayurveda, all dairy foods (apart from ghee) are considered heavy and difficult to digest. However, they are also highly revered for their deeply nourishing qualities and their peaceful effect on the mind, particularly cow’s milk. People with Vata (Air/Ether) and Pitta (Fire/Water) constitutions can greatly benefit from consuming dairy products, while people with Kapha (Water/Earth) constitutions or imbalances should generally avoid them.
To make dairy products lighter and easier to digest it is advised we do the following:
MILK should be mixed half and half with water, brought to the boil and cooked with digestion-promoting spices such as cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, cloves. It should only ever be consumed warm.
BUTTER should be clarified into ghee, which is sweet, light cooling and enkindles the digestive fire. Ghee should be used in place of butter (in cooking and as a spread) as it is more stable and is suitable for all constitutions (and is lactose-free).
CHEESE should be consumed with digestive antidotes such as black pepper to help negate its mucous-forming effects and young white cheese (such as ricotta, fetta and panir) are favoured over hard yellow cheeses because they are much lighter and easier to digest.
YOGHURT is actually quite congesting to the channels so is best eaten as a warm buttermilk curry or a light lassie (combined with water, spices and blended until fluffy).
CREAM & ICECREAM are very heavy and difficult to digest and should generally be avoided by everyone. If you are going to eat them, have them between meals, on their own and chase them with a warm ginger tea.
All dairy products should only be consumed with certain foods, including grains, spices and dried fruits (as in a porridge). According to Ayurveda, they should specifically never be combined with fresh fruit or fish. The constant combination of dairy foods with fresh fruit in the Western world is another major contributor to why people find it so difficult to digest.
From an Ayurvedic perspective, an inability to digest milk and dairy foods (if you have lactose persistence) is a sign of compromised digestion. It is an indication that you may not be producing enough lactase or enough hydrochloric acid to break down the casein proteins in milk (7).
Ayurveda teaches that digestion can be compromised or put out of balance by many things but particularly by: stress, excessive thinking, a lack of routine, excess travel, excess stimulants (coffee, chilli, entertainment, technology) and eating too much stale, heavy and processed food. This list is basically a summary of how most Westerners, and our children, now live our lives. So it is no surprise whatsoever why more and more people are less able to digest dairy foods.
If you are having difficultly digesting dairy, it can be a great idea to remove it from your diet, at least for a time - and you will feel much better! But if you’re not digesting dairy well, it is likely you’re not digesting any of your food very well.
Ayurveda teaches that at a physical level, poorly digested or undigested food waste is the root cause of all disease (from the common cold to cancer). So it is very important to pay attention to this sign of compromised digestion and do something about it.
Eliminating foods can help give your belly a rest, but if you’d like to actually heal your digestion and metabolism (and maybe eat dairy foods again some day), Ayurveda can help enormously with simple dietary and lifestyle approaches and herbal remedies.
1) Wikipedia – lactose intolerance
3) Wikipedia – lactose persistence
If you are in any doubt about your health please be sure to consult an Ayurvedic Practitioner or your local health physician.
Agni - the digestive fire.
Ama or Aama - undigested food waste, toxins.
Ojas- the foundation of our immune system and longevity.
Dhatus - the tissues of the body.
Srotas - the channels of the body.
Vata - the air/ether
intelligence in the body.
Pitta- the fire/water
intelligence in the body.
Kapha- the water/earth intelligence in the body.
Sattva- the quality of purity, intelligence, peace and love.
Rajas- the quality of
turbulence and activity.
Tamas- the quality of
dullness, darkness and inertia.
Rasa - the taste of a food (Sweet, Sour, Salty, Pungent, Bitter, Astringent)
Virya - second level of digestion (either Heating or Cooling)
Vipaka - third level of digestion, the deep taste of a food (can be Sweet, Sour or Pungent)
Prabhav - the 'special effect' of a food or herb/spice
Rasa - also the name for plasma tissue
Rakta - blood tissue
Mamsa - muscle tissue
Meda - fat tissue
Asthi - bone tissue
Majja - nerve & bone marrow tissue
Shukra - sexual reproductive tissue