There are a lot of people who express shock and disbelief when you admit to being vegan, and a common reaction is ‘but how can you give up cheese?!’ What these people don’t know is that they might actually be physically addicted to dairy, not just psychologically hooked. And it ain’t about the lactose folks, so read on…
When I first became vegan, I confess I struggled with relinquishing cheese, after all I’d only just discovered the amazing world of cheeses. But now I find it rather unpalatable as I know how it came to be and the cruelty involved in the product, as well as the likelihood of cheese containing pus, blood, antibiotics and growth hormones (in addition to the IGF1 already found in cow’s milk). It also quickly became clear how stuffy and snotty it makes me, and how much easier it is to breathe without it! If you have asthma or digestive issues and still eat dairy then you might want to read this.
How is Cheese Addictive?
Back to the topic of the post though! What do I mean when I say that people might actually be physically hooked on cheese and dairy? Well, it’s become fairly common knowledge that vast numbers of people have an almost complete lack of lactase, the enzyme needed to break down the lactose (sugar molecule) in milk. That lactose is either undigested or incompletely digested by us and begins to feed the bacteria in the bowel, putrefying and creating toxins that can have serious adverse effects on your gut function, and general health. Lactomorphin may also arise as a metabolic product after eating cheese or drinking milk but this is not the main cause of concern when looking at the cheese-addiction issue.
Instead, it is the partially digested casein, another component of milk, that may be the reason why you’re struggling to give up cheese. Casein can be converted by the body into opioids called casomorphins. Effectively we create our own morphine-like drugs! And can people get hooked on these opiods? You bet they can. In fact, it appears that this effect of casomorphin may be a useful thing… for babies, as it helps bond a child to its mother in order to encourage feeding. When you wrench the child (calf) away from its mother and steal her milk, however, it is you that forms that bond to her teats. Weird, no?
Giving Up Cheese
Ironic really that the people who are intolerant, and sometimes actually allergic, to dairy are the ones who will never give it up voluntarily as they’re physically dependent on it. Those who have cravings for cheese and dairy, particular if they have any IBS/IBD symptoms, a history of antibiotic use, generally dodgy digestion, or have had food poisoning, all of which compromise the gut wall, may be suffering due to problems with dairy proteins, peptides, and sugars. There is also some evidence suggesting that morphine, as well as casomorphin, affects the immune system itself by decreasing antibody secretion by Beta-lymphocytes (white blood cells). Cheese could, in effect, reduce your resistance to infection, as could morphine given to numb pain after surgery.
The potentially addictive nature of casomorphin and gliadomorphin may also be sex-dependent, with women trying to give up cheese or gluten possibly finding it more difficult than men (although this may be stretching morphine research in rats a little too far, admittedly).
Gluten, Casein and Autism
There is also an association, that many researchers are currently studying using clinical trials, between these opioids from casein/dairy and autism. As gluten also leads to an opioid, in this case gliadomorphin, a number of parents of autistic children have put them on a rigorous gluten-free and casein-free diet and often claim success at reducing or eradicating autistic traits in their kids. Understandably research is tricky in this area of medicine, so let’s hope the trials are effective at establishing the veracity of this association.
Meanwhile, consider your dairy cravings, do you feel ridiculously happy after eating cheese, and then a bit glum afterwards. Can you live without dairy, or are you hooked and need to go cold turkey? If you’re an athlete or a gym bunny then take a long hard look at the ingredients in that protein mix or protein bar. There’s most likely casein in there. I’m not saying it’s a problem for everyone to digest, but there is some evidence pointing to a connection between the casomorphins and gliadomorphins and schizophrenia, alcoholism, and depression.
Gliadomorphin Metabolism and Autism
The specific enzyme that is missing is the dipeptidyl peptidase IV (DPP IV), which is also lacking in many autistic children. One of the proposed theories behind the repetitive demands of autistic spectrum kids for very specific foodstuffs is that they induce this opioid effect, even with a trace amount present in the food (such as ketchup, processed chips, and of course, bread).
What can you do to cure the addiction? The obvious option is to wean yourself off dairy, wheat, and other sources of gluten. It’s wise to do this gradually as, like any addiction, there can be a withdrawal. Make sure that cutting out these food groups doesn’t compromise your nutrient intake though. Eating a varied vegan gluten-free diet will help, with lots of other grains, pulses, nuts, seeds, legumes, fruit and vegetables. And you probably don’t need to worry about your macrominerals that way because there are great vegan food sources of calcium and magnesium.
Yet another reason to go vegan. Perhaps it’s time I tried gluten-free too…
(Having difficulty dealing with the change to veganism? Try reading ‘Who Moved My Cheese?’ [hint: look to the vegan!].)
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