Debunking the Myth: Dairy and Inflammation

Cutting out dairy to reduce inflammation seems to be a current trend, but one that is misunderstood and, perhaps, detrimental to one’s health. The truth is unless you have a true milk protein allergy, research suggests that dairy is likely not the cause of inflammation in your body. In fact, consuming dairy and fermented dairy products may actually help reduce inflammation. Let’s dive more into what inflammation is and why there should be few reasons to cut dairy out of your diet.

Inflammation and the Immune System

Our body has two types of immunity – innate and adaptive. Innate is our body’s immediate response, and adaptive is the body’s second line of defense and long-term response. When faced with foreign invaders, the two immune systems go into action together to fight infection and protect the body from disease. Inflammation, generally speaking, is the immune system’s response.

Proinflammatory and anti-inflammatory cytokines are released by the body’s immune cells in response to infection and the cytokines communicate between the two immune systems so that they work together. These cytokines are key factors in fighting infection and maintaining homeostasis of our immune system.

When there is an imbalance or overactivation of the immune system, it may lead to chronic inflammation because of the increased and prolonged circulating pro-inflammatory cytokines due to the failure of our body’s immune system to maintain a healthy balanced state. Unfortunately, this chronic inflammation does have an impact on the health of our bodies, increasing our risk of metabolic disorders such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes, as well as other autoimmune diseases and cancers.

The causes of this balance are not completely known, but it may be linked to genetics and environmental influences such as stress, lack of exercise, and an unhealthy diet and gut. Hint, hint…the foods you eat matter, and dairy makes a positive difference!

Power of Dairy’s Nutrients

Nutrients in our food play an integral role in a working immune system, and the nutrients found in dairy foods fit the bill. Dairy foods are a good and excellent source of protein, riboflavin, zinc, magnesium, and vitamins D, A, and B12, all of which are involved in everything from the development of immune cells to aiding in the communication of anti-inflammatory immune response.

Studies continue to validate that eating a recommended amount of dairy foods as part of a balanced diet are not linked to inflammation, and potentially have an anti-inflammatory effect.

Dairy may reduce inflammation in our bodies by providing those key nutrients to support a working immune system and regulate immune function within the gastrointestinal tract (where 70-80% of our immune cells live) by interacting with the mucosal lining to improve intestinal barrier function and stimulate the appropriate immune response. Studies also show that consumption of dairy is associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular, diabetes and, metabolic syndrome which are diseases associated with high inflammation. This also correlates well with research showing that the Mediterranean and DASH dietary patterns that incorporate dairy foods are associated with reduced inflammation markers.

The Bonus of Fermented Dairy

Along with all the nutrients that dairy provides, fermented dairy foods, such as kefir, may have additional anti-inflammatory and immune-supporting effects thanks to probiotics and the production of bioactive compounds.

Because the majority of our immune cells live and are produced in our gut, when our microbiome is out of balance, that imbalance may make us susceptible to inflammation, infection, and disease. Probiotics introduced to the body through foods help balance the level of good bacteria in our gut to keep our immune system strong and responsive.

Probiotics work to strengthen the intestinal lining, helping to stimulate the appropriate immune response by inducing a network of signals to decrease proinflammatory cytokines and increase anti-inflammatory cytokines. In addition, probiotics may reduce the expression and activation of inflammation markers on cells to reduce inflammation in our body. Finally, probiotics release a variety of bioactive compounds in the gut that improve the health of the microbiome. Often called postbiotics, studies suggest these compounds may also help with immune response by supporting messaging between gut microbes and the immune system, influencing cell development and migration, and boosting systemic immunity.

Bottom Line – Don’t Dismiss Dairy!

Not only does dairy not cause inflammation, excluding dairy from our diet means missing out on immune-supporting nutrients that the body needs to reduce the risk of inflammation and disease. And, the probiotics found in fermented dairy foods, such as kefir, naturally play a role in maintaining the gut microbiome to support a healthy immune system and reduce inflammation.

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