By Dr. Maurice Hinson
Despite being lactose intolerant, I was always able to consume cheese with no issues. And I had a profound love for cheese- mainly cheddar. I put it on everything. It was the one dairy product that I craved. But I now understand why that was. If you’ve ever left milk out for too long or forgot about it in your fridge and allowed it to expire, then you’ve created and SMELLED your own cheese. Bacteria break down the lactose in the milk into lactic acid which causes “curdling” of the milk. During this process, most of the lactose is broken down (especially in hard cheeses like cheddar) which is the reason why consuming cheese doesn’t result in as many symptoms as drinking milk. Dairy companies use genetically engineered bacteria that are derived from some commonly found bacteria in our bodies in order to speed up this process and create the cheese’s unique texture, smell, and taste. Limburger cheese, for example, is created using the same strain of bacteria that causes foot odor, while Swiss cheese gets it characteristic look by using bacteria that releases CO2 gas bubbles.
This processing also increases the concentration of casein. Casein is a protein found naturally in dairy; however, it’s broken down into compounds called casomorphins, which are structurally similar to morphine. According to research and articles published in the National Library of Medicine, these casomorphins bind to the same brain receptors as opioids, like morphine, oxycodone, vicodin, percocet, and heroine. Therefore, casomorphins are able to elicit similar physiologic effects, including a sense of euphoria and potential for addiction. This is why we crave cheese. Cheddar has been found to have the highest casein content and, therefore, has the greatest addictive potential. Lastly, of all the dairy products, cheese has the greatest acid forming potential. In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Swiss cheese is one the most acid forming food products known. Again, excess acid leads to severe dehydration and chronic inflammation. Chronic inflammation leads to the development of chronic disease. The potential health risks associated with the consumption of cheese, and other dairy products, should warrant eliminating it from our diets.
There are some excellent alternatives for Vitamin D and calcium. It may come as a surprise, but Vitamin D is actually not a vitamin at all- it’s a hormone. Hormones are produced by the body, whereas vitamins are acquired through the foods we eat. Milk is not a natural source of Vitamin D. It has been added to dairy since the 1930s in order to combat Rickett’s disease. The pathway for Vitamin D production begins on the surface of the skin when exposed to sunlight. Therefore, safe sun exposure is the most effective method of maintaining adequate Vitamin D levels. Over the counter Vitamin D supplements are also an effective and safe alternative. Calcium is found in a number of other foods, like fruits, green leafy vegetables, and beans. Additionally, it’s important to avoid other calcium lowering agents like high sodium foods, alcohol, and phosphoric acid (found in dark cola sodas).
If we consider the idea that dietary habits are a function of geographic location, then we’ll discover an interesting correlation between the migration patterns of the earliest humans and lactose intolerance. Humans first migrated out of Africa into Asia, then moved westward eventually settling in Northern Europe. Interestingly, while 75%-95% of people of African and Asian descent are lactose intolerant, only 18-26% of northern Europeans are lactose intolerant. One could hypothesize that as a result of the colder, more arid climate in northern Europe vegetation was not as readily available and so the consumption of cow’s milk became custom. So over time, the descendants from the earliest settlers of northern Europe evolved to better tolerate the consumption of cow’s milk according to an article published by the Cornell Chronicle.
If this is true, one could further surmise that dietary tolerance overall is a function of evolutionary adaptation. Therefore, the western diet consumed here in the U.S., which is known to predispose to obesity and other chronic diseases, may pose an even greater threat to the health of people of African and Asian descent. Meanwhile, EVERY study that I’ve come across has demonstrated better health outcomes with a plant-based/alkaline diet. So, elimination of dairy from our diets, with concurrent supplementation of Vitamin D and calcium from other sources, is an excellent step in improving our overall health.
Maurice D. Hinson, MD is the Founder/CEO of MediRootz Medical Group, a telehealth based primary care practice committed to providing equitable access to high value primary care. Dr. Hinson received his BA in Neuroscience from Johns Hopkins University, his Medical Degree from Drexel University College of Medicine, and completed his residency in Internal Medicine at New York Presbyterian Weill Cornell Medical Center.