Milk: How to Drink IT
Milk is a precious food. Classical Ayurveda texts tell us it nourishes all tissues, right down to the Ojas (the subtle essence of our body/mind often equated with immunity). Milk is nourishing, cooling, balancing to Vata and Pitta, and a great medium to take many herbs with.
Despite the current controversies surrounding milk, Ayurveda teaches that cows' milk is the most sattvic (balanced and enlivening) and nourishing of foods. Milk is the only food that is satmya, natural to consume for all humans because all babies require mother's milk. It is an aphrodisiac and essential to reproduction, supporting both a vigorous sex drive and healthy babies. Milk is used in treatments for diverse issues including depression, cancer, and kidney failure. It is used to satisfy hunger and thirst when correcting obesity. Due to its sattvic quality milk leads to a sense of satisfaction and soothing useful in all sorts of dis-ease.
Cow's milk is considered the most nourishing milk, though goat's milk is lighter and thought to be the best to feed babies if mother's milk is not available. Water buffalo milk is best for insomnia, but too heavy to digest for most other purposes.
The Sages of Ayurveda would be concerned to see so may people turning away from milk. Faddishness aside there are real reasons why milk seems not to work for some people. Milk is rich and heavy as most nourishing foods are, and for compromised digestions it can present problems like bloating and gas. One of the qualities of fresh milk is sara or flowing, so milk should act as a natural mild laxative. But for some people with compromised digestions the heaviness (thus slower digestion time) of milk can actually add to constipation problems.
Inability to digest milk is due in part to weakened digestive systems and in part to the poor quality of milk that is typically available to us. One has to actually put work into finding milk that is not denatured by homogenization and ultra-pasteurization, hormones, hybridized breeds of cows, and poor farming practices. Additionally reducing the fat in milk makes it harder to digest as it increases the lactose content. All of these influences make a naturally healthful food into one that is easy to demonize! Read more on the dangers of 'processed' milk here...
Finally milk is not satmya (accustomed) to everyone. Those of us who come from cultures where milk has been a primary food for generations should certainly be able to drink milk healthfully. Milk-satmya backgrounds include most European, Middle Eastern, and some African cultures. Asian cultures are divided on milk with peoples of the Indian sub-continent and Central Asia of course prioritizing milk, but many East Asian cultures avoiding it historically.
For most people following these Ayurvedic guidelines to preserve your digestive vigor and even correct a developing milk intolerance so that you can benefit from it's many gifts:
- Fresh, organic, unpasteurized, un-homogenized whole milk is best. Raw milk is usually the best we can get in Cali. All of these processes denature milk and make it more difficult to digest. Avoid ultra-pasteurization like the plague it is.
- Drink milk warm, after bringing it to a simmer. Raw milk is harder to digest and has more lactose (which many people have issues with). You can add water to your milk to boil it to make it lighter and easier to digest.
- Add a pinch of ginger, clove, cardamom, saffron, cinnamon, nutmeg etc. These spices give your Agni (digestive fire) the extra umph it needs to digest efficiently.
- Let milk be a meal by itself or a between-meal snack:
- A cup of warm spiced milk is a great breakfast for people who are not too hungry in the morning.
- When it is too late for dinner but you don't want to go to bed hungry have a cup of hot milk with nutmeg or a few strands of saffron for a restful nights sleep.
- Milk and food combining:
- Avoid milk with salt. Ayurveda says this is a very damaging food combination. This means cooking with milk, cheese, yogurt etc should be avoided (see below for exceptions). Don't add salt to your oatmeal if you have it with cream. Cream soups are out, and cream cheese bagels are asking for trouble.
- Avoid fish and milk as is compromises blood and brain tissues. Alas Cullen Skink & Finnian Haddie are not Ayurvedically appropriate.
- Avoid milk with anything sour. This is why fruit and milk combinations are problematic for many.
- Have milk with grains: cream on oatmeal or farina, rice pudding, cocoa thickened with barley flour are delicious, properly food-combined occasional treats.