Milk and other dairy foods are considered to be a trigger for constipation in some. Let's explore this further, identify the potential causes for this, and think about possible alternatives to these foods in the diet.
Milk and dairy foods can be a cause of constipation
Why does dairy cause constipation?
The milk that most of us buy is considered to be a processed food due to the processes it goes through before it reaches our shelves. It may contain both antibiotics and hormones from the cows it originates from, and is almost always pasteurised in order to kill off milk-borne bacteria. However the pasteurisation process also removes valuable enzymes that help us to digest the milk, as well as other important vitamins and minerals. In addition, in contrast to traditional farming methods, intensive farming techniques have led to cows being fed grain rather than grass, which may cause further potential digestive problems and act as a trigger for constipation (particularly for those sensitive to grains).
Dairy is considered by many health practitioners to be mucus-forming in the body (for this reason it can be helpful to avoid dairy products if you are suffering from a cold or hayfever to help relieve a runny nose). In Traditional Chinese Medicine, milk and other dairy products are considered to be damp forming foods, which may also go some way to explaining why they can cause constipation and digestive problems. According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, the Spleen meridian (the digestive system) does not like cold or so-called damp foods (with ice cream being the strongest example).
If dairy triggers my constipation, does it mean I am lactose intolerant?
If you believe that dairy foods act as a trigger for your constipation, it does not necessarily mean that you are lactose intolerant. In fact, it is more typical for those who are lactose intolerant to experience diarrhoea. It may also cause bloating and abdominal discomfort as a lack of the enzyme lactase, which we need in order to break down milk, causes the dairy in our system to ferment and release excess gas. Taking a probiotic supplement can be helpful for those with lactose intolerance, as the beneficial bacteria exert an enzyme-like activity, helping to breakdown the lactose (sugar) in the milk. You may like to read more about the benefits of probiotics in helping to relieve constipation here.
Ways to reduce constipation from dairy products
There are certain forms of dairy foods that may actually be helpful in relieving digestive problems. Raw milk (unpasteurised milk) is considered by many natural health practitioners to be more easily digested than the more widely available pastuerised varieties, and may be helpful in relieving constipation and other digestive problems. Raw milk is something of a controversial subject and we believe it is important find out as much information as possible to help determine if it is suitable for you. If it is something you would like to try, I would always recommend sourcing it from a reputable supplier. Live natural yoghurt contains live cultures which may possess a probiotic benefit in helping to boost levels of healthy gut bacteria, working to improve digestion and keeping things moving. Another more unusual type of dairy food called kefir may also be beneficial to those experiencing constipation and abdominal discomfort. Kefir is a type of fermented milk containing large quantities of live cultures and probiotic bacteria, and is used in many Eastern and Northern European countries as a health food. Kefir is slowly becoming more popular here in the UK as its potential health benefits are recognised. If making your own Kefir seems too daunting, you can purchase it ready made at your local independent health store.
Somewhat controversially, raw milk is often considered to be easier to digest and may reduce constipation
Alternatives to dairy in our diet
It may be helpful to try avoiding dairy products to reduce constipation, but as a useful source of protein and calcium, as well as other minerals, it is important to take care to replace these nutrients in your diet. There are many other delicious foods we can include in our diet to ensure we maintain an adequate calcium intake including sardines, green leafy vegetables (pak choi, cabbage, kale, spring greens etc), sesame seeds, tahini, figs, blackstrap molasses and almonds. If you are concerned removing milk and dairy foods from your diet may impact upon your health, we would recommend seeking advice from a Nutritional Therapist or Naturopath.
Green leafy vegetables such as broccolli and swiss chard are rich source of calcium
There are a number of great alternatives to cow's milk. Some of my favourite include Koko coconut milk and unsweetened almond milk, oat milk and rice milk. Coconut milk, which differs from the thicker, more concentrated type you would add to curries, is also a source of medium chain triglycerides, providing the body with an easily accessible source of energy. Almond milk is also rich in calcium, making a lovely alternative to dairy.
It is worth bearing in mind that we are all different, and some people may be able to tolerate milk and dairy products well, and for others it may cause constipation and digestive discomfort. An elimination diet may be helpful in determining whether this food group is a problem for you, and by slowly introducing them you may find some products such as butter and ghee and better tolerated and do not cause constipation. In addition to an elimination diet, there are many natural remedies for constipation; take a look at this piece here.