Emma Sammels

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Think Twice Before You Eat Lots of Dairy

Knife ready to cut piece of butter on a pastry preparation on wooden table near eggs and brown sugar

Many people believe that changing to a dairy-free diet is beneficial for your health. Here’s what I’ve discovered from treating lots of patients- excellent wellness results can happen when you reduce dairy or hold it off for a while. Read on to learn something new, hopefully.

Please feel free to jot a comment below- I’d love to hear from you. ~Emma 

What are dairy health concerns?

First, I don’t want to frighten you about eating dairy products because I’m a firm believer in a little bit of what you fancy does you good. However, in Chinese medicine, multiple symptoms can develop from overeating dairy in the diet.

The ancient Chinese knew it was a real problem for our health and the function of the body. In particular, seeing when the digestive or respiratory systems (including the nasal cavity) were off track, Damp and Phlegm symptoms arose. Many other organs can also be affected; I’ve just highlighted the main ones.

Terminology such as Damp and Phlegm may sound bizarre- as they did for me before training as an acupuncturist- but when I saw how these traits manifested in patients, I knew for sure they existed.

Today, conventional medicine also acknowledges that excessive dairy in the diet is problematic, being commonly connected to inflammation and acidity levels rising in the body long-term, leading to illness and disease.

What are Damp and Phlegm?

I’ve treated lots of patients with Damp and Phlegm related to a multitude of conditions.

Damp is inconspicuous and tends to affect your digestive system when it’s deficient in energy (Qi deficient) and not working optimally. I define it as being similar to a muggy, rainy day that’s lingering in nature, making you feel sluggish or not quite right in yourself.

Phlegm is equally unpleasant to experience and is a type of mucus produced in the lungs and lower respiratory tract. In Chinese medicine, it’s commonly a continuation of chronic Damp in the system.

A large percentage of patients I treat (approximately 85%) experience Damp, and Phlegm is highly prevalent too. Problems occur when both patterns overpower the mind, body and spirit.

What symptoms are associated with Damp and Phlegm?

Damp typically shows up as general tiredness, mucous in the stools, heaviness of the limbs (sluggishness), a head that feels thick and foggy first thing in the morning, arthritic joint problems, candida, skin conditions (especially acne and certain forms of eczema), food sensitivities, oedema and even weight gain, among many other symptoms.

Phlegm tends to manifest in the form of growths like cysts, bunions, lipomas (benign lumps), polyps, chronic diseases like cancer and the obvious one, catarrh. Sinus problems are also frequently Damp and Phlegm related.

These symptoms are among the reasons why you could, at the very least keep a close eye on your dairy intake. It doesn’t mean you have to live without eating it forever. Instead, it’s a good idea to keep it for those special occasions.

What causes Damp and Phlegm?

Several diverse factors are known to cause Damp and Phlegm. Here are the primary ones:

Diet- Unquestionably, a diet high in dairy products exacerbates Damp and Phlegm.

If you find it challenging to tolerate dairy, I recommend experimenting to see how your body responds to certain products. Milk, cheese, butter, cream, yoghurt and, sadly, ice-cream fall under this category. Remove the most common dairy first, before proceeding to the next item for approximately 8-12 weeks, and then gradually reintroduce one at a time to see which symptoms reoccur. With chronic symptoms, it may take several months of perseverance to notice any significant changes.

For further encouraging results, also try to make your dietary changes at the same time as some traditional acupuncture.

If you are intolerant or sensitive to lactose and caseinate, it’s a good idea to avoid milk and dairy at all costs (GP’s can now offer a lactose test for you). However, even if you’re not delicate to dairy, I recommend cracking down on your intake.

Gluten- It is thought gluten can also create Damp in the system and is commonly found in bread, pasta, cakes, sweets, biscuits, sauces, condiments and lots of other processed foods. If you want to lessen your Damp symptoms, it’s worth taking a look at your gluten consumption. To learn more about gluten, and how it can affect your health, I highly recommend listening to Grain Brain by Dr David Perlmut.

It’s also a good idea to book in with a qualified nutritionist who can guide you safely about gluten sensitivity because it exists on a spectrum. You may not have coeliac disease, but many people are gluten sensitive with misinterpreted symptoms.

In particular, I admire the nutritionist Amelia Freer. Her conventional medical cookbooks mention gluten sensitivity with some fabulous recipes and are infinitely worth joining your bookshelf.

Emotions- What does your emotional wellbeing have to do with eating dairy? Absolutely everything! Chinese medicine sees the emotions and physical body as inseparable.

In good health, your emotions will flow smoothly; however, when unresolved or not expressed clearly, they can become problematic. Endless worry, mental strain or overthinking can disrupt the digestive process leading to a deficiency in energy (Spleen Qi deficiency) and is likely to cause Damp. Therefore, caring about your emotional state is the most critical thing to do if you want to keep your digestive system healthy and stay well in your mind, body and spirit. Additionally, working through any worries and trying to minimise any excessive overthinking will, in the long run, help you to feel more energised.

Medication- Taking antibiotics can easily throw your body off-kilter. In conventional medicine, the short- and long-term effects of antibiotics can deplete your immune system. Afterwards, infections may occur more speedily and become harder to rectify.

Shockingly, antibiotics and other nasty hormones are also added to poorer processed dairy products to increase its shelf life. (Yikes!). Hence this is why I often advise investing in high-quality dairy to avoid overburdening the system with unnecessary medication that may lead to nasty side effects.

In Chinese medicine, the overuse of antibiotics often contributes to Damp, along with damaging the gut ecosystem (microbiome). If you already experience symptoms of Damp from eating dairy and have to take a course of antibiotics, your health is likely to suffer. In this incidence, bypassing dairy for a while would be advantageous.

Always let your doctor customise your antibiotic requirements. Allow them to decide if you need to take them or not.

Constitution- Daft as it may sound, your constitution can impact how you metabolise dairy products. I see patients who eat tonnes of dairy with a cement-mixer digestive system, and they seem to do perfectly fine from eating it (they’re the fortunate ones born with strong Jing). I do think excessive dairy might catch up with them later on in life, though. And then there are the sensitive souls who only have to eat a small amount of cheese or ice-cream for it to affect their biology enormously.

So, it is worth learning about your unique constitution and the strength of your digestive system to help look after your overall health and wellness.

Damp environment- It’s also a good idea to avoid living in a damp environment. Wearing sweaty clothing post-exercise or walking around with wet hair in the colder months is a sure way to exacerbate Damp symptoms. There’s a certain amount of truth in the old house wive’s tale of sitting or standing on damp surfaces can create haemorrhoids (piles), and so it’s best avoided, too.

What kind of supplements are suitable?

The superstar supplement, in my opinion, suitable for improving the gut ecosystem is Biocare’s BioAcidophilus Forte. By improving your gut health, it can help strengthen your digestive process and assist in minimising Damp; but this product should not be used as a substitute for a varied and balanced diet or healthy lifestyle.

Another word of advice, if you do decide to reduce your dairy consumption it’s a good idea to keep a close eye on your vitamin B12 intake, particularly if you follow a vegan or vegetarian diet. For some patients, B12 supplementation is necessary. Common foods that contain B12 are chicken, beef, trout, eggs to name a few.

Please consult your GP, who can guide you safely before taking supplements. Biocare offers free online basic advice by qualified nutritionists who can safely point you in the right direction.

What about calcium?

Yes, dairy is calcium-rich; however, believe it or not, overeating it can deplete your calcium levels and contribute to many health issues. How? Dairy in excess may increase inflammation and acidity in the body affecting the PH level in the blood. Too much acid can lead to the loss of essential minerals that help your organs to function correctly, particularly calcium, the mineral needed to strengthen bones. A withdrawal of calcium can lead to a weakened bone structure, otherwise known as osteoporosis.

Therefore, keeping your inflammation and acidity levels right down by reducing your dairy intake may allow your cells to function optimally to prevent illness or disease from emerging in the future.

If the idea of reducing calcium in your diet is unsettling, it may put you at ease to learn that in parts of China and Southeast Asia, where dairy consumption is minimal, arthritis or bone deterioration are not primary health concerns like in the West.

You can substitute your dairy safely by eating plenty of the best sources of calcium found in dark green vegetables such as spinach or bok choy, high-quality boned sardines, nuts, seeds (sesame) and pulses. Nuts can be Dampening, though, so I like to tailor them individually.

For the right patient, I also like to recommend in moderation goat or sheep products because they’re less Damp and Phlegm forming.

There are many more calcium foods out there- these are just a few of my favourites.

The bottom line

If you don’t appear to have three or more symptoms relating to Damp or Phlegm, it might be perfectly fine to eat, in moderation, organic grass-fed dairy products from time to time. But if you have experienced chronic Damp symptoms (aeons of months), it’s highly likely you would benefit from surrendering dairy completely due to continually irritating the system.

Above I’ve highlighted just a few examples in Chinese medicine of how dairy can impact your biology and the way your mind, body and spirit function. I advise going gently with the guidelines and follow what feels right for your unique constitution.

For more health advice, try coinciding these tips alongside some traditional acupuncture treatment or consult a clinical nutritionist who can advise you safely.

Please discuss with your doctor or traditional acupuncturist if you have a severe medical condition before trying any of my advice. As with all articles on emmasammels.com, this is no substitution for individual medical intervention. If you are interested in finding out more information, please visit my Bookings page.


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