We laugh about it now but, at the time, there was nothing funny about the sunny South African afternoon in 2016 that went spiralling out of control after a long country drive.
The culprit? A f*cking milkshake.
This wasn’t just any ordinary milkshake though. It was the biggest, full fat bastard of a chocolate delight I’d ever seen and I downed it.
That evening, back at our AirBnB, I had the mother of all breakdowns in front of my boyfriend (now husband), Ryan. It wasn’t an ordinary crying session – the kind most of us have had so many of over the years. It was an all out assault on every hopeful thought I’d ever managed to have. It was totally irrational, but I wanted to die.
Even Ryan was thrown off kilter and, I gotta say, he’s fairly unflappable.
When the skies had cleared and I was thinking more rational after many hours, I looked through my memories of the day to figure out where it all went wrong.
“Maybe the milkshake?” Ryan suggested and we both laughed…until I Googled it.
IT WASN’T OUR IMAGINATION
Google led us to find hundreds of forum posts about the subject:
“I ate a cheese platter and cried for two days straight.”
“An ice-cream sundae with my family gave me suicidal thoughts for hours.”
“Milk and cookies left me completely hopeless.”
The anecdotal evidence was shocking, but as a former journalist I needed more.
None of my doctors had ever mentioned that dairy could affect my depression. Sure they encouraged me to eat “properly” and exercise, but what was proper nutrition really?
I started diving into studies and papers written by researchers and doctors.
The truth was unnerving.
FIGURING OUT THE SCIENCE
According to a Harvard study, only one third of people with major depression achieve remission with antidepressants.
That means there’s more to the science than simply brain chemistry on the fritz.
If it was black and white, there’d be a solution for everyone.
Factor into this the fact that 60% of adults can’t properly digest milk, and you’ve got a lead. They lose the enzyme, lactase, which is needed to digest it.
Many people who suffer from mental health issues have been found to be sensitive or even completely allergic to one of the two main components in milk – lactose and casein.
Lactose is the sugar. Casein is the protein.
It’s these allergies or sensitivities that create the catalyst for depression which is inflammation.
While depression is not an inflammatory disease and not everyone who has depression has inflammation, it is a factor for many.
WHY DOES INFLAMMATION MATTER?
Inflammation is the guard dog at the door. It alerts the immune system to a problem and sets of a group of proteins called cytokines.
This tells the brain that the body is in trouble and initiates what doctors call, “Sickness Behaviour.” This behaviour mirror depression.
Basically, these proteins change the way your brain functions and that’s important for short term physical recovery. The trouble is what that sustained inflammation causes.
Several studies have shown the effects of inflammation and anti-inflammatories on depression. For example, people with arthritis have a higher risk of depression due to the inflammation within their bodies.
IT’S NOT JUST INFLAMMATION THAT CAUSES PROBLEMS
While inflammation is a major factor in the problem with milk, it isn’t the only one.
Cysteine is an amino acid that plays an important role in mental health. It helps produce something called glutathione which protects your body from oxidative stress. Milk (specifically the casein in it) reduces cysteine absorption by 64%.
The supplement N-acetyl cysteine (NAC) which helps the body produce cysteine has been studied a fair amount and been found to reduce depression in double-blind studies.
Although there is a lot of information out there about supplement – including some truly great information from journalist Jordan Fallis – I haven’t personally started supplementing with it as of yet.
Additionally, milk decreases the amount of folate that gets to the brain. Although folate often gets confused with folic acid (and both are forms of vitamin B9), they aren’t the same thing.
This folate deficiency not only creates a breeding ground for depression but it also causes a poorer response to antidepressants. What the hell? Now that’s bad.
SO MILK MIGHT BE HURTING YOU. WHAT’S THE FIX?
You basically have two options to combat the havoc milk might be throwing down on your system.
My first suggestion is a thirty day total abstinence from anything dairy.
That includes milk, butter, ice-cream and yes, even cheese!
The horror of it all! Haha…but really it is very doable and it’s a super powerful way to see if dairy is causing any inflammation in your system.
Keep a daily journal to help you reflect at the end of your experiment.
The amount of dairy substitutions on the market is mind-boggling. I, however, suggest making your own if you have the time and money for the raw ingredients. A lot of homemade cheese use pricey ingredients like cashew nuts.
Check out this page at SpruceEats to find homemade substitutions for everyday dairy products.
And, before you start hollering about how you’ll get your daily calcium, there are many non-dairy foods to help you do that.
Foods high in calcium include chia and sunflower seeds, broccoli, oranges and orange juice, soybeans and sweet potatoes.
The list is pretty big and you’ll get a good start by browsing a fuller list here.
If cutting out dairy completely is just a bit too much to handle (I get it, sometimes big steps are overwhelming), then your next best bet is to switch to all low-fat dairy products.
A study by Tohoku University between Japanese and Chinese scientists found that depression is deeply impacted by the amount of fat consumed in dairy.
Take a big step and switch to skim or low fat milk instead of full-creamer.
Avoid full-fat ice cream and butter. Sherbert and frozen yogurt is actually better tasting in my humble opinion.
Avoiding cheese altogether would be good but I know that can be a tough ask. In the end, do the best you can and start small if you have to.
Baby steps are better than sitting still. Believe dat!
As for me and my experience, I haven’t touched a milkshake since that horrible day in 2016. Guess I’ll have to find something else to bring the boys to the yard 😉