Multiple Sclerosis, Cow's Milk and Dairy
Some people insist there is a relationship between multiple sclerosis and cow’s milk while others say such an association is nonsense. The following information may or may not change your mind, regardless of which side of the aisle you are on. However, it is information you may want to consider in your management of MS.
One of the first large studies of an association between multiple sclerosis and cow’s milk was published in 1992. The authors of the French study evaluated data about dairy food consumption and the prevalence of multiple sclerosis in 27 countries and 29 populations around the world.
The analysis showed a highly significant correlation between drinking cow’s milk and the prevalence of MS, and a less but still significant correlation when they looked at the intake of butter and cream. Cheese, however, was not found to have a relationship with MS.
Thus the authors suggested that liquid cow’s milk may contain elements that could have an effect on the appearance of multiple sclerosis while processed milk products might be lacking those substances. Subsequent research by other teams then indicated that various proteins present in cow’s milk (e.g., butyrophilin) are targeted by the immune cells in individuals who have MS.
Butyrophilin is the main protein associated with the fat in milk. This protein is very similar to the myelin oligodendrocyte glycoprotein, which is believed to trigger the autoimmune reaction in multiple sclerosis. Butyrophilin induces inflammation in the central nervous system in animals as well as stimulates myelin oligodendrocyte glycoprotein-specific T cell responses.
At least one diet associated with multiple sclerosis, the Swank diet (which will be covered in an upcoming article), emphasizes that the only cow’s milk and dairy consumed should be fat-free or skim, which eliminates butter and most cheeses. Both a vegetarian and vegan approach also have been advocated for multiple sclerosis, with the former allowing dairy but recommended in limited amounts to keep saturated fat levels low.
It has been suggested that cow’s milk may contribute to the development of multiple sclerosis (and other diseases, including type 1 diabetes) because it contains only 20 percent as much linoleic acid as does human breast milk. Since linoleic acid is necessary for healthy nerve tissues, a lack of this essential fatty acid might be a factor. Some research also has shown that the brain tissues of people with MS have greater levels of saturated fat than do people without the disease.
The bottom line
The role of cow’s milk and dairy in multiple sclerosis remains uncertain and ill-defined. As with so many other dietary questions, the effects of food on any specific person and health issue is highly individual, depending on biochemistry, genetics, and a variety of environmental factors.
Therefore, whether to include or exclude cow’s milk and dairy foods in your diet may be a personal choice to be discussed with a knowledgeable healthcare provider or a step you take on your own. In the meantime, the wheels of investigation into the impact of milk, dairy, and other dietary factors on multiple sclerosis continue to turn.
Baker RW et al Fatty-acid composition of brain lecithins in multiple sclerosis. Lancet 1963 Jan 5; 1(7271): 26-27
McDougall J. Treating multiple sclerosis with diet: fact or fraud?
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Mana P et al. Tolerance induction by molecular mimicry: prevention and suppression of experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis with the milk protein butyrophilin. International Immunology 2004; 16:489-99
Riccio P et al. May diet and dietary supplements improve the wellness of multiple sclerosis patients? A molecular approach. Autoimmune Diseases Pub. Online 2011 Feb 24
Stefferi A et al. Butyrophilin, a milk protein, modulates the encephalitogenic T cell response to myelin oligodendrocyte glycoprotein in experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis. Journal of Immunology 2000; 165:2859-65
Vojdani A et al. The prevalence of antibodies against wheat and milk proteins in blood donors and their contribution to neuroimmune reactivities. Nutrients 2014; 6(1): 15-36