Milk Got You On Fire?

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By Kelly Brogan, MD

I used to be a dairy addict. When my naturopath asked me to give up gluten and dairy 6 years ago, it was approximately 2 more years before I stopped fantasizing about cheese, milk, ice cream, ricotta (yes, I’m Italian), and yogurt. It turns out we have a decent explanation for the deep pleasure associated with dairy and its best friend, wheat, and it’s the exorphin compounds from these foods that interact with opiate receptors in the brain and other bodily tissues.

There is a burgeoning literature in psychiatry that supports immune responses to the protein casein in dairy, primarily cow, as playing a role in pathologies ranging from depression to schizophrenia.

This is not to say that dairy is a problem for everyone, or that all dairy is a problem for some. In my experience, reintroduction of dairy after a month of elimination is enough to tell you which camp you fall in. In fact, I have had patients report vomiting upon re-exposure – to something they have eaten daily for decades!

To further substantiate the obvious fact that I cannot tolerate dairy, I love research like this paper entitled Commercial Cow Milk Contains Physically Stable Extracellular Vesicles Expressing Immunoregulatory TGF-β. 

In the wondrous land of all things too complex for modern science to grasp, exosomes have made a powerful appearance. The extracellular vesicles are an epigenetic tool for between cell communication. They are in breast milk, vegetables, and yes, cow mammary secretions. They contain MicroRNAs (miRNAs), a well-defined group of non-coding small RNAs that “talk” to our genes and get them to “talk back” by modulating their expression. In fact, in breast milk, these exosomes are charged with supporting infant immunity as a part of the two-person process of sufficiently supporting infant development.

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Pieters et al studied the effect on T cells of semi-skimmed commercial cow milk (yum!). They found that the milk vesicles were extremely stable under degrading conditions, including low pH, boiling and freezing and they were taken up by rodent immune cells called macrophages.

Here’s where it gets freaky.

Milk Got You On Fire?

They observed that, once taken up, these vesicles:

…can facilitate T cell differentiation towards the pathogenic Th17 lineage. Using a (CAGA)12-luc reporter assay we showed that these extracellular vesicles carried bioactive TGF-β, and that anti-TGF-β antibodies blocked Th17 differentiation.

What this means is that the vesicles were a Trojan Horse of inflammatory messengers that triggered the development of inflammatory cells. Why is this? Is this because the cows were raised under completely unnatural conditions? Stressed, fed GMO grains, and injected with vaccines, antibiotics, and growth hormones? On the other hand, perhaps these inflammatory molecules are an important part of mother-to-baby (cows in this case) communication? Perhaps it is by design for this species.

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Now this is an in vitro animal study, so it is primarily hypothesis generating, but it may argue for the unique immune-related communication between mother and baby in that early developmental window and how consumption of this living liquid later in life, let alone cross-species, may not always be a perfect fit.

For more information like this, please check out Dr. Kelly Brogan’s new book, A Mind of Your Own: The Truth About Depression and How Women Can Heal Their Bodies to Reclaim Their Lives – on sale now – follow the link to read the first chapter for free.

Kelly Brogan, MD, is a Manhattan-based holistic women’s health psychiatrist, author of the book, A Mind of Your Own and co-editor of the landmark textbook, Integrative Therapies for Depression. She completed her psychiatric training and fellowship at NYU Medical Center after graduating from Cornell University Medical College, and has a B.S. from MIT in Systems Neuroscience. She is board certified in psychiatry, psychosomatic medicine, and integrative holistic medicine, and is specialized in a root-cause resolution approach to psychiatric syndromes and symptoms. She is a mother of two.

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