Ask Gerda: Does Dairy Cause Sinus Issues?
Gerda Endemann, our senior director of science and research, has a BS in nutrition from UC Berkeley, a PhD in nutritional biochemistry from MIT, and a passion for cherry-picking from our wellness shop. She spends a lot of her time interpreting research—established and emerging. And our wellness routines thank her for this. (Yours will, too. Send us your own questions for Gerda: [email protected].)
Dear goop, I guess there are a lot of reasons that people stop eating dairy products. One I’ve heard is that it increases mucus and stuffed-up sinuses. Is that true? —Siena C.
Hi, Siena. I complained about having a stuffy, runny nose for years. I also complained about frequent sinus infections. My older sister repeatedly told me that dairy products could be the cause. But because these symptoms aren’t commonly associated with food allergies—or because of some other reason probably best explained by a psychiatrist—I didn’t want to listen to her. It was inconceivable to me that I could give up yogurt, butter, and cheese. And having always eaten whatever I wanted, I didn’t like to think of having to say no to pizza, grilled cheese, whipped cream, my banana cream pie, cheese soufflé, etc.
When people think of a food allergy, they often think of peanuts causing anaphylactic shock. A stuffy, runny nose is more commonly attributed to pollens and cat dander. However, common adverse reactions to dairy include bloating, diarrhea, constipation, pain, and gas. And dairy can also contribute to upper respiratory symptoms.1 It doesn’t take magical thinking to link what you eat to a stuffy nose.
Classic allergies, like reactions to pollen and peanuts, involve IgE antibodies and mast cells and histamine. Dairy products are one of the big-eight food groups that cause most IgE-mediated food allergies.2 (Other common allergenic foods are peanuts, soybeans, fish, crustaceans, eggs, tree nuts, and wheat.) Some but not all of the proteins in cow’s milk—and sometimes in goat’s and sheep’s milk—that people are allergic to can be inactivated by heating the milk. In addition to allergies, there’s the whole unexplored territory of food intolerance. In contrast to food allergy, food intolerance does not necessarily involve antibodies. We know little about intolerances, so they tend to be discounted.
Does dairy promote excessive mucus formation in some people? We don’t know, but there is some relevant research. Inflammation increases mucus formation. A protein in milk called beta-casein comes in two forms, A1 and A2. The A1 form causes inflammation in the gut and the lungs in mice. Most cow’s milk in the US and Europe contains the inflammatory A1 beta-casein. Milk from goats, sheep, buffalo, and certain breeds of cows contains A2 beta-casein, which is not inflammatory. Some certified A1-free cow’s milk is now available in the US and Europe. And whereas intolerance of lactose, the sugar in milk, causes diarrhea, A1 beta-casein can cause constipation, especially in children.
Anyway, I gave up dairy two and a half years ago and haven’t had a sinus infection since, which is amazing. I don’t have proof that dairy was the cause, but sometimes it’s worth experimenting on yourself and trusting your instinct.
I hate not being able to have freshly whipped cream with my coffee. But here are a couple of products that lessen the blow a little. Golde makes delicious coconut-milk-based powders, so I can sip a warm, soothing nondairy latte. Both Original Golde and Matcha Golde contain turmeric and ginger to up the flavor and support healthy inflammation.
The Fullest makes a uniquely delectable coconut-milk-powder-based latte mix with saffron and cardamom. Saffron is more than just exotic; it’s a healing, mood-supporting herb. I’m not equating the saffron in this concoction with a clinical dose of saffron extract, but it’s the same valuable botanical.
This article is for informational purposes only. It is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. To the extent that this article features the advice of physicians or medical practitioners, the views expressed are the views of the cited expert and do not necessarily represent the views of goop.