Why Ayurveda is wrong about modern dairy

Almond milk photo by Daria Nepriakhina on Unsplash

The ancient Ayurvedic texts say it's OK for Vata and Pitta people to consume dairy. but as a modern Ayurvedic practitioner in London, I see two problems with this. First, when the earliest texts were written, more than 2,000 years ago, milk came from people's own cows or cows in their village. They were revered and part of family life. Their milk was considered sattvic (pure). They weren’t, like today's cows, kept in factory conditions and pumped full of growth hormones and antibiotics, fed on foods that contain chemicals such as herbicides and pesticides. The milk wasn’t processed, pasteurised and homogenised before being transported to you (via several handlers, none of whose concern is your nutrition). Not so sattvic.

Second, around two-thirds of British and European adults can't digest dairy. After childhood, we aren't meant to – we are unable to produce the enzyme, lactase, needed to process lactose (the main sugar in milk). This has become known as'lactose intolerant, causing symptoms like gas, bloating, cramping and loose stools. But it's actually the normal human condition. We can digest milk as babies – mammals' milk is for the sole purpose of feeding their young –but once weaned off that, we lose the ability, as we no longer need it. 

The third of European adults who have evolved to process lactose are the unusual ones, due to a genetic mutation that happened in Europe a few thousand years ago (in many parts of the world almost none of the population can digest milk). Digestion is further hampered in people with ama (toxins from undigested food) and those with low digestive capability.

Today, dairy cows are forced to remain pregnant for most of their lives, so that they produce enough milk to meet modern human demand. And they're injected with hormones that artificially increase the amount of milk their body produces. Pasteurisation, done to improve the safety and shelf-life, destroys important enzymes and beneficial bacteria (and its prana – life force) making it hard to digest.

Remember the cream you used to get at the top of a bottle of a milk (back when it used to come in bottles not cartons)? That's because it wasn't homogenised. The homogenisation of modern commercially produced milk breaks down fat globules so they don’t separate into that layer of cream. Changing its molecular structure like this makes it even more difficult to digest. 

But back to those ancient Indian dudes who wrote the original Ayurvedic texts. They made a crucial point about consuming milk and dairy products, which can be overlooked if you are simply following a prescriptive food list: they stipulated that dairy had to be in very small amounts, it had to be boiled first then cooled, and it had to be spiced to aid digestion. They definitely weren't drinking large lattes, and they were only using organic and raw (which of course they didn't say, because that's the only kind they knew!).

If you are in the minority who can digest milk and wants to consume it, keep in mind that although modern organic is a better option than non-organic, it has still been through these processes. Unless you have your own cow, or know a farmer who supplies raw dairy products, it is wise to avoid it. Otherwise, if you want to be Ayurvedic about it, boil it before use, consume it only occasionally and as a very small proportion of your meal or drink, and add spices such as cinnamon, cardamom, ginger or nutmeg. Subject to that, and your digestion, its effect is grounding, strengthening and nourishing to the deeper tissues, which benefits people treating Vata dosha, and calming and cooling for Pitta dosha. Kapha people, and those with ama or mucus congestion, should always avoid milk and dairy as it is mucus-forming.

For the majority of us, though, swap animals' milk for plant milks. Nut milk is easy to make: simply soak nuts overnight in filtered water, and blend the nuts and water together in the morning (then strain if you want it to be smoother). Commercially, there are so many available now (always pick unsweetened, of course) – almond milk, cashew milk, macadamia, hazelnut, soya, rice, hemp, seed milks... we're spoilt for choice. Frankly, the 'mylk' aisle at Wholefoods can be quite bewildering!

Jacqui Gibbons is an Ayurvedic health coach, currently training as a yoga teacher, and will be offering yoga and Ayurveda workshops in London in 2019