Dairy and hormonal balance

Ever wondered how dairy may be affecting your hormonal balance?

Products made with cow’s , sheep’s or goat’s milk contain proteins, saturated fats and carbohydrates in the form of lactose. Proteins from dairy contain all essential amino acids, which is a good thing, especially if you are on a vegetarian diet that may be low in some of protein components. However, protein from dairy can be acidifying which can lower your ability to eliminate toxins and excess hormones via de kidneys and also increase bone mineral loss to increase your body’s pH and reduce acidity. So, if you are a cheese lover (I have to put my hand up here…), make sure you have plenty of fruit and veg with your dairy to reduce acidity, i.e, add radishes and celery to your cheese platter, mix plenty of berries into your breakfast yogurt, etc.

Full fat or skimmed??

Fats from dairy are mostly saturated, which in large amounts have been linked to higher risk of cardiovascular disease, so another reason to enjoy cheese and milk in moderation. But did you know saturated fat can also affect your hormonal balance? Here is how: in some cases of hormonal imbalance like PCOS or endometriosis, inflammation is an important factor and because dairy, especially full-fat varieties can be pro-inflammatory, I recommend moderation and, in more severe cases, complete elimination until at least the imbalanced has improved. When you indulge in a cheese fondue or polish off that creamy chicken pie, just make sure you switch gears the day after and eat plenty of anti-inflammatory foods like steamed veg, fresh salads, oily fish, olive oil and flax and chia seeds.

Diets high in saturated fat (like that found in cheese and ice-cream for example) contain high levels of palmitic acid that has been linked to higher levels of circulating oestrogen, so those with endo or oestrogen dominance will benefit from choosing lean meats and skimmed dairy products: skinny matcha latte anyone?

Oestrogens in dairy

Dairy products, especially those with a full-fat content, contain high levels of oestrogens that can interfere with your own levels and promote endometriosis as well as, hormone-related cancers, like breast, womb or ovary. But that’s not all, our hormones work in balance to regulate our cycles, mature eggs, trigger ovulation and promote implantation so excess oestrogen can be affecting your fertility. Dairy cows are also pregnant which make the levels of oestrogen in modern milk much higher than in the past and more likely to affect our hormonal levels.

Dairy, testosterone … and good skin!!

Milk and other dairy products contain a hormone known as Insulin-like Growth Factor 1, which promotes the production of androgen hormones such as testosterone, which can worsen hormonal imbalances not only in cases of testosterone dominance but also when there is an excess of oestrogen as testosterone can be aromatased into oestrogen in fat cells, which can be exacerbated when we are overweight. And guess what? There is a link between dairy and acne…because excess androgens can stimulate sebum production which block hair follicles and result in those dreadful pimples!

And the gut…of course, there is always a role for the gut!

The saturated fat in dairy can increase an enzyme in the gut called beta-glucurodinase that in turn can decouple oestrogen that has already been metabolised by the liver to be excreted and allow it to re-enter circulation. So, in cases of oestrogen or testosterone dominance a diet high in animal products (especially fatty ones!) can worsen the already present hormonal imbalance. But don’t panic, if you are a dairy lover there are foods that can help reduce this enzyme and make your excretion process more effective, mainly those high in fibre like all vegetables and fruit as well as my favourite hormone supporting seeds, flax!! Add them to your morning smoothies, soups, mix them unto your avo smash and even mix into pancake batter!  And let’s not forget that fermented products like kefir (dairy or dairy-free), miso or kimchi are high in probiotics that promote gut health.

Does organic really make a difference? Yes, it does!

Non-organic dairy can also contain pesticides from their feed and other chemicals that our liver needs to metabolise for the kidneys and gut to excrete.  In situations of hormonal imbalance, like PCOS endometriosis or even when sustained stress makes your cortisol run high, your liver is quite busy trying to detoxify the excess hormones so any additional toxins, chemicals or hormones will only increase the burden and increase your toxic load. So, what to do if your access to organic dairy and other animal products is limited? Support your liver with plenty of brassicas like broccoli or cauliflower (see, there is a health reason behind that wonderful broccoli and stilton soup!!), allium family veg like onions, garlic and leeks and as many antioxidants as you can possibly scoff, so don’t forget to eat a “rainbow” of foods every day!!

And the antibiotics question

Milk based foods, especially if not organic, can contain antibiotics and with the current concern about the long-term effects of increasing antibiotic resistance, it is advisable to always go for organic milk and other dairy products – as well as meat and poultry, for the same reason!

But enough about dairy fat…let’s talk about milk sugars

Lactose is the sugar in milk. It is very different from the sugar in starchy foods in that it does not cause an energy spike when consumed and doesn’t require insulin to be transported into our cells to be converted into energy.

Lactose is metabolised in the intestine by an enzyme going by the apt name of lactase. Some of us are born with very low levels of lactase so our guts find it really hard to digest dairy products unless they are low-lactose or lactose free. This is particularly hard to identify in small children and babies as they cannot tell us how their little tummies feel!!

Eating lactose when you can’t digest it can damage your gut wall, decreasing hormone excretion, and decrease vital nutrient absorption, so if you experience symptoms when eating dairy, talk to your GP or nutritionist to check your lactase levels.

As we age, our levels of lactase decrease making lactose digestion harder for some of us leading to gas, bloating and painful digestion. Fermented products like yogurt or kefir are a good idea for those with low lactose levels as the fermentation process reduces lactose considerably making it much easier to digest.

Calcium can help reduce PCOS and PMS symptoms

Yes, we do need calcium to keep out bones nice and strong especially as we age but   calcium from dairy products can create a very acidic environment in our body that instead of promoting an increase in calcium reserves may reduce our bone levels as the body uses stored minerals (calcium and magnesium mainly) in bone tissue to reduce acidity. So, what are good sources of non-dairy calcium? Fortified non-dairy milks like coconut, rice, oat, almond or soy, almonds, sesame seeds, canned oily fish (because you eat the bones), green leafy veggies like kale, broccoli and spinach and tofu/soy beans products.

Research shows that calcium can help with menstrual abnormalities and improvement in PCOS symptoms, as this mineral can contributes to egg differentiation and maturation. Calcium can also reduce PMS symptoms because ovarian hormones can affect the calcium:magnesium ratio especially if you are deficient in either of them and trigger water retention, bloating, pain, mood changes and…well, you know the rest.

So…what’s the bottom line? Dairy yay or nay?

  • If you suffer from a hormonal imbalance, avoiding dairy or consuming it in strict moderation can only be a good thing – just ensure you are getting enough protein and calcium from other sources.
  • In the absence of hormonal imbalances, my advice is to buy organic dairy whenever possible to avoid toxins, antibiotics and pesticides and also consume in moderation as dairy, especially full- fat varieties, can promote inflammation, increase oestrogen levels, promote weight gain (that lovely cheese is pretty high in calories!) as well as increase cholesterol.
  • When shopping for dairy, buy less proceed products like cheese wedges rather than grated cheese and plain, probiotic yogurt rather than sugary or fruit varieties.  Read the labels!!

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