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Olwen Anderson's Blog

Does Dairy Affect Asthma?

Saturday, March 25, 2017
With every diagnosis comes free advice, it seems – from friends, from family, from Facebook. One commonly held belief about asthma is that dairy makes asthma symptoms worse; that it increases mucous production. But is there any scientific evidence to back this up? And if this is what you actually experience as an asthmatic, why does it happen?

I hasten to point out, before we continue, that having asthma requires ongoing medical monitoring, whether you utilise natural therapies or not. Uncontrolled, it’s potentially fatal. But there are many ways you can help prevent asthma attacks happening, and diet is one of them.

The scientific research around asthma and dairy so far has reached two conclusions: first that many people make changes to their diet based on their beliefs and their experiences; how they feel. And second, that very little robust (peer reviewed) research has been done on whether dairy really does make asthma worse. Many of the studies have been too small to be taken seriously, and those that did include enough people to be statistically significant are inconclusive. So there’s no definitive answer from science for the question; but immune systems can over-react, and here’s how over-production of mucous can develop. (By the way, I've included a list of some studies I found at the end of this article).

All parts of your body where the inside meets the outside world, like your airways, are guarded by the patrolmen of your immune system, immunoglobulins. Their role is to constantly check what’s entering your body. When something arrives that they’ve been trained to believe is dangerous (like dairy) they alert other members of your immune system to take action. Kind of like calling in emergency services at the border check point to deal with an attacker.

In response to a perceived invader mucous producing cells (called goblet cells) secrete sticky mucous in abundance so that the offenders are entrapped and washed away. But if the immune system decides that wasn’t enough your airways can over-react, bringing on an asthma attack. If attacks seem relentless your body can increase the number of goblet cells so that even more mucous will be produced next time.

It can be hard to decipher whether dairy is affecting your asthma, as there are so many other factors involved; like whether you’re susceptible to airborne pollutants, and whether you’re already malnourished. One way to investigate whether dairy is a problem for you is to cut it out of your diet completely for a few weeks and see how you feel. 

McKeever & Britton 'Diet and Asthma'  published in American Journal of Clinical and Respiratory Medicine 2004  DOI:

Onorato et al 'Placebo-controlled double-blind food challenge in asthma' published in The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology 1986

Woods et al 'Food and nutrient intakes and asthma risk in young adults' published in American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2003 

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