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Hormones In Milk (testosterone, estrogen, progesterone): Does it always do a body good?

Milk is an interesting food. Is it good for hormones, or is milk bad for you? Should you eat only organic or raw milk? With all the contradictory information about milk and how it impacts hormones, what should we believe?

Milk is seen, almost universally, by the average American as a health food. Those seeking muscle building and fat loss usually have nothing but great things to say about milk. And for good reason. It has valuable anabolic properties. But milk may be an issue for some. As it relates to hormones, it may present some issues for some women, men and children.

A February 2010 article in the journal Pediatric International (February 2010. Vol. 52 #1) showed a potentially disturbing issue related to milk and its impact on the hormonal system.

The modern dairy cow has been converted to a full time milk factory. It is not often talked about, but modern industrialized dairy cattle continue to produce milk throughout their pregnancy. This milk goes directly into the food supply and contains varying amounts of bovine estrogen and progesterone. These hormones are then directly absorbed by consumers.

organic, grass fed milkThe researchers of this study wanted to see what impact these hormones were having on men and women so they enlisted seven men, five women, and six pre-pubertal children. The adult male and child participants in the study drank the equivalent of 2 8oz glasses of milk and had their urine and blood tested before drinking the milk and at multiple time points after milk intake.

The adult women in the study drank the same amount of milk (2 8oz servings) daily for 21 days beginning on the start of their menses. They were then followed for two more consecutive menstrual cycles to determine if female ovulation was impacted.

The results of the study were worrisome especially for children. The adult male participants had significantly increased blood levels of all female hormones including estrogen and progesterone as well as a sharp decline in serum testosterone.

All the adults in the study, as well as the children, had increased levels of estrogen and progesterone and a suppression of their body’s own hormonal regulation of these same hormones.

According to the researchers, the levels of hormones could be especially problematic for children by delaying sexual maturation in young boys and increasing it in young girls. In addition, as discussed by the researchers, adults could theoretically see increased risk for hormone sensitive cancers including breast and prostate cancer.

The lowered testosterone seen in men in this study raises a counterargument to the common belief that milk helps increase testosterone and improve body composition.

The integrative medical community has had questions about milk intake for sometime. Milk is no longer processed the same way it once was. Selective breeding of dairy cattle, the use of drugs and hormones to generate greater milk yield per cow, issues with pasteurization and others have altered the quality of milk and raise questions about how healthy it really is for human consumption.

There are many other issues often raised with modern day milk intake. These include a link of milk intake to acne, recurrent ear infections in children, possible relation to low thyroid activity, hormone related cancer, and food allergy and food sensitivity.

Keeping things in context

It is easy to take a single small study like this one and become an alarmist. The truth is information such as this needs to be viewed in context. This is a small study and there are many other studies showing positive aspects of milk consumption.

Examples of beneficial aspects of milk intake include increased protein (especially BCAA), vitamin D and calcium among others. Protein as well as vitamin D and calcium are positively associated directly or indirectly with testosterone among other hormones.

The Metabolic Effect clinic has seen both benefits from, and issues with, dairy. Many men and women suffering from hormone related issues (PCOS, PMS, acne, prostate issues, etc) benefit from either reducing dairy intake or eliminating milk consumption altogether. But, we have also seen great health improvements in many after replacing refined starch and sugary foods with milk protein (i.e. replacing morning cereal with a whey protein meal replacement shake).

Given these seemingly contradictory pieces of information, both clinically and in studies, what take homes can we offer related to the potential downside and obvious upside to dairy protein? Here are our suggestions:

  1. If you are eating large amounts of dairy foods in the form of daily milk intake, cheese, yogurts and other foods AND you are suffering from hormone related issues (acne, PCOS, PMS, prostate, etc), then it may be wise to reduce your milk intake, eliminate it for a brief period of time or find a permanent replacement for milk (see elimination diet advice below).
  2. When choosing dairy foods opt for organic or even raw milk products (available in some areas). These products have less of a chance of being issues.
  3. If organic dairy products are not an option you may want to opt for lower fat milk since higher fat items concentrate fat soluble compounds like hormones. High fat milk contains more hormone.
  4. If you suspect dairy foods may be an issue do a diet elimination and challenge test: Eliminate all dairy foods for a period of 10 to 14 days or until symptoms improve. Then “challenge” the food by having 1 large serving of a dairy food. After this one meal challenge, once again avoid dairy foods for a period of 4 to 5 days looking for any worsening or return of symptoms. As an example, if you suffer from acne and milk elimination results in improvement, but the challenge causes a return or worsening of the condition, you have a positive challenge and should decrease milk use, eliminate it altogether or at the very least consume with digestive enzymes (McCann, M. “Pancreatic enzyme supplement for treatment of multiple food allergies,” Ann. Allerg. 71:269, 1993).

Milk Alternatives

For those who would like to try to avoid milk or eliminate it for a short period of time here are the alternatives we recommend.

  • unsweet almond milk
  • unsweet coconut milk
  • unsweet soy milk (downside= a source of plant estrogens, possible thyroid disruption)
  • unsweet rice milk (downside= high in carbohydrates)
  • almond and rice cheeses
  • pea, hemp, rice, soy protein replacement shakes (our favorite is Vega one, Vega Sport and ME The Meal DF)

Final thoughts

Hopefully you can see the issue is not so clear. Many do wonderfully on milk. Some do not. While there are many beneficial aspects of dairy, there are also potential concerns. Given the individual nature of metabolism we cannot and should not make blanket statements regarding foods. One person’s food can indeed be another persons poison.

References & further information:

  1. Murayama, et. al. Exposure to endogenous estrogen through intake of commercial milk produced from pregnant cows. Pediatric International. Feb 2010;52(1):32-38.
  2. Ganmaa D, et al. The possible role of female sex hormones in milk from pregnant cows in the development of breast, ovarian and corpus uteri cancers. Med Hypotheses. 2005;65(6):1028-37. Epub 2005 Aug 24.
  3. Velle W, et al. Endogenous anabolic agents in farm animals. Environ Qual Saf Suppl. 1976;(5):159-70.
  4. B. Melnik. Milk consumption: Aggravating factor of acne and promoter of chronic diseases of western societies. J Dtsch Dermatol Ges, 7(4):364{370, 2009.
  5. Farlow, et al. Quantitative measurement of endogenous estrogen metabolites, risk-factors for development of breast cancer, in commercial milk products by lc-ms/ms. J. Chromatogr. B Analyt. Technol. Biomed. Life Sci., 2009;877(13):1327-1334.
  6. Raloff, et al. Janet Scientists find a soup of suspects while probing milk’s link to cancer. Science News March 28th 2009; Vol.175 #7
  7. Allen, et. al. Animal foods, protein, calcium and prostate cancer risk: The european prospective investigation into cancer and nutrition. Br. J. Cancer, 2008;98(9):1574-1581.
  8. http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/24693/title/What-s-in-your-milk-/
  9. http://www.news.harvard.edu/gazette/2006/12.07/11-dairy.html
  10. http://nutritionfacts.org/video/hormones-in-skim-vs-whole-milk/