You may have heard that dairy (milk foods) can make female hormone problems worse. Acne, heavy or painful periods, endometriosis, PMS, and bloating can all be made worse with dairy intake. You may have experienced this yourself.
As practitioners we have seen dairy elimination help hundreds if not thousands of patients over the years. They stop dairy for a trial, and their acne clears up. Bloating disappears. Period pain resolves.
However, there is no solid scientific evidence that says dairy directly causes these female hormone problems, with the exception of acne (This 2018 meta-analysis shows a positive link between most dairy types and acne).
So why do we see this connection and does it apply to you?
What do we know about dairy and hormones?
We know that milk from lactating animals naturally contains hormones such as estrogen, progesterone, cortisol, leptin, androgens and insulin growth factor, among others. Is this the reason dairy consumption could mess with your hormones?
The answer is . . . probably not. In fact, the FDA claims that if you eat hormone-containing foods, and the amount is under 1% of what your body makes, then there are no physiological effects. This means that in terms of hormones, milk is safe.
Since we’ve been consuming milk for thousands of years, the rise of PCOS and other female hormone imbalances does not correlate with milk consumption! So it appears that the hormones in milk are not the culprit of period problems.
Then why is dairy a problem for women’s hormone balance?
If you browse the internet or popular books on women’s hormone health, you will see that dairy elimination is usually suggested. Typically there’s no reason offered to back this up. It boils down to anecdotal evidence – women trying dairy-free and getting results.
But we want an explanation. And we’ve got one. It’s a type of milk protein called 𝛣-casein A1. There is growing evidence that 𝛣-casein A1 is inflammatory for most people! Here’s how it works:
Your pancreatic enzymes break down 𝛣-casein A1 into opiate peptides called beta-casomorphins (BCMs). This 2017 review of studies clearly shows that BCMs (in particular BCM-7) cause both gastrointestinal and systemic inflammation in all people. (Gut inflammation shown with high stool calprotectin levels, and systemic inflammation with blood markers.) Studies compared 𝛣-casein A1 with 𝛣-casein A2, and over and over, the A1 type caused inflammation while the A2 type did not.
It’s systemic inflammation that can make hormone imbalance worse. Inflammation is a key driver of PCOS and endometriosis. Women with PMS and period pain are generally more inflamed than women without these symptoms.
So how to know if BCMs are an issue?
The inflammation from BCMs can actually damage your intestinal lining (think leaky gut and food intolerance). If you have food intolerances and any of the above mentioned hormonal conditions dairy may be making both worse.
The problem with these BCMs is that they can also make you feel good because of the opiate effects. Do you crave dairy and feel good shortly after eating it? Do you feel worse without it? Since 𝛣-casomorphins affect your brain, you may have symptoms such as anxiety or brain fog. All these are indicators of BCM intolerance.
It’s difficult to directly measure beta casomorphin reactions if you’re not in a research study. There is one decent blood test by Cyrex labs, the Array 4, which does measure reactions to 𝛣-casomorphin.*
The simplest way is to do the time-tested method of eliminating all dairy for at least three months, and tracking how you feel. Notice changes in your menstrual cycle symptoms, and also notice other symptom changes such as acne, eczema, dermatitis, nasal congestion, asthma, digestive upset, brain fog, moods and anxiety, and joint pain. If any of these get noticeably better, you’re on to something.
Why do you need to wait three months to see a shift? There are at two main reasons:
- It could take at least 12 weeks to reverse some of the inflammatory effects on both your intestinal lining AND your uterine cavity.
- The hormonal feedback cycles between your brain and ovaries do not adapt quickly.
What about dairy that has beta casein A2 instead of A1?
Does this exist? Yes. According to the California Dairy Association:
Milks from Guernsey, Jersey, Asian herds, human milk, and others (sheep, goat, donkeys, yaks, camel, buffalo, sheep, etc.) contain mostly A2 𝛣-casein. Milks from Holstein Friesian contain mostly A1 𝛣-casein. The Holstein breed (the most common dairy cow breed in Australia, Northern Europe, and the United States) carries A1 and A2 in approximately equal amounts. More than 50 percent of the Jersey breed carries the A2 variant, but with considerable variation among the herd, and more than 90 percent of the Guernsey breed carries the A2 variant.
However with cow’s milk, you really don’t know how much A1 𝛣-casein it has unless it’s been tested. One option is to go with certified A2 milk. Or, stick with the non-cow types of milk. Camel’s milk anyone? Almond milk?
If you have hormone problems consider going dairy-free for three months and see how you feel. If you feel noticeably better yet want to reintroduce dairy, consider:
- Goat or sheep milk
- Certified A2 milk
- Butter or ghee which are very low in casein
If you introduce these and any symptoms worsen, you may be a good candidate for living a largely milk-free life. Leave the animal milk for animal babies.
In our PCOS solution program, we do a 10 day elimination diet that removes milk. We guide you through what to eat instead of milk, and then how to reintroduce it to test its effects. Please join our next group!
*Cyrex Array 4 tests Alpha-Casein & Beta-Casein IgG + IgA Combined, Casomorphin IgG + IgA Combined, Cow’s Milk IgG + IgA Combined, Milk Butyrophilin IgG + IgA Combined, Milk Chocolate IgG + IgA Combined, and Whey Protein IgG + IgA Combined
We welcome your input below!