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  • Writer's pictureValerie Smith, APRN

Can a Dairy-Free Diet Decrease Inflammation?

Autoimmune diseases are inflammatory conditions, and that inflammation can increase and decrease due to a wide array of contributing factors. Inflammatory triggers come in all varieties, including stress, lack of rest, overexertion, illness, vitamin deficiencies, a poor medication regime, and more.

What triggers your inflammation? What increases the severity and length of your flare-ups? What makes your autoimmune disease symptoms better or worse?

Have you considered how the food you eat might be a trigger? Have you thought about the connection between what you consume and your disease activity?

Here on our blog, we’ve explored whether following a gluten-free diet, anti-inflammatory diet, and wheat-free diet can help your health … and now let’s discuss if a dairy-free diet is beneficial when living with a rheumatic disease.

Should You Eliminate Dairy From Your Diet?

A simple Internet search will bring up a long list of pro-inflammatory foods, such as refined carbohydrates, fried foods, processed meats, prepared frozen meals, desserts, and sugar-sweetened drinks. Oftentimes, dairy products will appear on that list.

So does dairy cause inflammation, and therefore, does dairy contribute to autoimmune disease development? The answer is rather controversial.

Some patients say that dairy-containing foods have an effect on their overall inflammation and play a role in both their acute and long-term symptoms. But not everyone agrees with those claims, and you will find other people that feel avoiding dairy is an unnecessary step when managing a rheumatic disease.

That’s why disease management is truly an individual journey. No two patients will experience the exact same symptoms nor find identical solutions to remedy those symptoms.

As with all treatment options, choosing to follow a specific diet is a personal decision and the outcome of such treatment will be unique to you. It’s all about making an educated decision that proves to be the right fit for you.

What Research Suggests Regarding Dairy

Just like you will find mixed opinions among patients, you will also find varying research results surrounding the topic of dairy and autoimmune diseases.

“It turns out that there’s a striking correlation between a population’s milk consumption and how much multiple sclerosis is in the population. The more cow’s milk, the more multiple sclerosis.

Molecular mimicry may be playing a role. Multiple sclerosis is a disease of damage to the nerve sheaths, the important covering to our nerve cells. It turns out that there’s a protein in cow’s milk that looks a lot like a protein on our nerve sheaths. Our immune system reacts to both the cow’s milk protein and the nerve sheaths.

The link between dairy intake and autoimmune disease and molecular mimicry doesn’t stop with multiple sclerosis. Type 1 diabetes, a disease where the immune system attacks the pancreas, has also been linked to dairy. There is a striking correlation between high dairy consumption in a population and high rates of type 1 diabetes. Patients with the disease also have a strong immune response to proteins in milk that ‘mimic’ components of the pancreas.”

Furthermore, the Arthritis Foundation sums up the findings of several studies:

“It’s clear that a diet high in saturated fats – which are plentiful in cheese and full-fat dairy products – can increase inflammation. But other fatty acids found in dairy have been linked to health benefits such as a reduced risk of diabetes …

A study published in The Journal of Nutrition in 2015 found that eating dairy foods increased low-grade inflammation in a small sample of German adults. And a study of more than 40,000 people with osteoarthritis (OA) found that those who ate more dairy products were more likely to need hip replacement surgery. On the other hand, several studies have found that drinking milk and eating yogurt can lower the risk of gout.

Despite conflicting information, overall, research paints a positive picture for milk-based products. A 2017 review of 52 clinical studies, published in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, concluded that dairy generally has anti-inflammatory effects, except in people allergic to cow’s milk. Still, the authors of that review noted there’s surprisingly little known about what components of dairy products might be helpful versus harmful.”

How To Determine What Diet is Right For You?

Is eating a dairy-free diet the way to go? Perhaps, yes. Maybe, no.

Unfortunately, finding the right diet for you is a sort of trial-and-error undertaking.

But one aspect of rheumatic disease care that no one can dispute is that the foods we eat do indeed impact our overall health. No doubt, our diets definitely contribute to our wellbeing.

When trying to decide if any particular diet regime is a good fit, you can try out an “elimination diet” as a way to track your progress.

As described in this guide by the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health, an elimination diet is the process of removing from your diet specific foods or entire food groups (such as all dairy products) that you suspect are problematic, and then reintroducing those eliminated foods weeks later as a way to see which foods create troublesome symptoms.

It is important to remember that the key to an elimination diet is patience. You must completely remove the questionable foods with no cheat days and give your body time to completely clear out those once-consumed foods from your system. From there, you need to be vigilantly aware of your symptoms and closely track your progress.

Support From Paducah Rheumatology

If you feel like a dairy-free diet could benefit your health, we will be your cheerleaders.

Here at Paducah Rheumatology, we understand that managing a rheumatic disease is a journey that comes with ups and downs, and we are here to support you through those successes and failures.

For those new to our practice, send in a physician’s referral and give us a call at 270-408-6100 to set up an appointment.

We look forward to helping you determine the best diet that will meet your individual needs and improve your quality of life.

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