Milk -- An Ayurvedic Consideration

The modern and ancient views for the value of milk have collided head-on it seems. Lactose-intolerance is uncommonly common around the world, yet ancient Ayurvedic authorities have given milk high honors for health-promotion. It is a sattvic food (promotes even temperament, clarity of perception, good judgment, love, compassion, etc.) capable of sustaining life nearly single-handedly. This article will examine some of the issues in an attempt to reconcile the modern experience with the classical one. At the end there is a listing of the description of milk  according to its source from two classical texts—Caraka Samhita and Sushruta Samhita.

The following are important considerations which describe milk as we use it in the US:

1)      Milk is rarely sold as “raw” as most communities require pasteurization.

2)      Milk is rarely consumed directly from the cow--

·        Milk is rarely fresh

·        Milk is stored at 400 F (for up to 40 days)

·        Milk is drank cold/ unboiled

3)      Whole and reduced-fat milk & milk products are almost always homogenized.

4)      The animal (Genus and species) source of milk importantly determines its butter-fat and protein content, taste, other components, actions, and digestibility.

The germ theory of disease has promoted the use of bacteria-killing heat processes, called pasteurization. The temperature and duration of this process vary around the world, according to storage and handling needs. For example, some containers are foil-lined and may be stored in un-refrigerated grocer’s shelves for weeks if pasteurized at high temperatures (at or above 1800F, for example)—common in Europe. Lower pasteurization temperatures require cold-storage, found commonly in the US groceries. This process implies the addition of some unnatural attributes of the milk, compared to ancient practices. Milk that is pasteurized, is harder to digest than raw.

The conditions of modern economic life have discouraged the ownership of dairy animals in any place but rural communities. Hence, few people can get milk directly from the cow. This requires the implementation of preservation techniques—refrigeration is mandatory to prevent quick souring, etc. Cooler temperatures extend the preservation time. Milk is stored by the seller and consumer at these cool temperatures—usually about 400 F. This fact of refrigeration makes all foods harder to digest, according to Ayurveda. Basic chemistry tells us that lowered temperatures yield slower processes, and thus the digestive process is degraded, too.

At some point in the 1950’s, producers and consumers decided that fat-separation in the milk was undesirable, which gave way to a process called homogenization This process effectively reduces the fat molecules in milk to a size capable of being suspended in the fluid for its useful life. This process has had, according to some experts, an important deleterious consequence, e. g; homogenization makes the fat molecules so small that in binding to the milk protein they are capable of leaving the stomach thru its lining before digestion is complete. These undigested proteins circulate and accumulate in the cell membranes throughout the body and become an irritant, which with repeated exposure manifests as allergy (doshic reaction). Hence milk intolerance is widely reported. In Ayurvedic parlance, the milk (fat) has acquired subtlety (sukshma guna), which attribute makes it difficult to digest and to eliminate. 

In India the Brahma cow, Bos indicus (the likely source of milk referred to in the ancient texts), is not at all the same animal as a Jersey or Guernsey of US herds (Bos taurus). The Brahma cow has a much more muscular look to it and can in fact perform work tasks. There is an Ayurvedic dictum: To know the animal is to know its products. Hence the milk's fat content, etc of these Brahma cows is quite different than that of the Jersey cow. There is a trend in India to cross-breed these types for the enhanced butter fat content and for their cheaper feeding requirements. This act materially changes the nature of the milk produced and crucially, its digestibility. Digestibility is in fact the central issue around all foods. Thus, while the Ayurvedic texts extol the virtue of cow’s milk, we need to ask also, what / whose milk.. Ayurveda says cow's milk is one of the best foods--unfortunately, because the Brahma cow of India does not produce the same product as the many types of cows of the US. butterfat content is only one aspect.

There are many new issues with cow’s milk—recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) (linked to of cancer), steroids, antibiotics that enter the food chain, feed such as soy products which alter the nature of the protein in the cow, and conditions of raising (free ranges versus crowded pens) have become issues argued to affect the milk. Some declare that free-ranging promotes production of lactase, an enzyme that breaks down lactose, and thus aids digestion of milk, whereas feed-lot environments inhibit production of this natural enzyme. The practices which deviate from ancient ones may be seen as altering the milk in some fundamental way. Modern researchers do not have the benefit of Ayurvedic insights to properly evaluate the effects of these practices on human health. We only point to their unnatural character and suggest that Mother Nature doesn’t like to be tampered with.

There is a great controversy arising around the world because of the rampant spread of AIDS-HIV in Africa and other countries. Mothers are discouraged from breast-feeding their infants to prevent the infection of their suckling babies. There is an irony here--there are many values to mother's milk--immunity is a big one. The mother’s immunity normally passes to the infant thru the milk from the breasts. Proscription of mother’s milk now further weakens the immunity of the nursing infant. Another irony is that there is some evidence that breast feeding significantly lowers pregnancy rates of the nursing mothers. This is a natural hormonal reaction and yet in countries where populations are booming this fact is undermined with advocacy of formula feedings. Ayurvedic clinicians have observed in the course of their work that a physical anomaly in the form of a depressed sternum manifests in adults not having sufficient mother's milk. This suggests that there are effects of breast feeding not yet appreciated in the West.

A final point may be offered in the context of milk substitutes. There are numerous products having the word milk—almond milk, soy milk, rice milk, and so on. These products are not milk in any way, except for liquidity and whitish color. Their actions can be inferred from their components—soy, rice, almonds, etc. They may be nourishing in some way but not exactly as milk from animals. There is significant evidence around the use of soy protein isolate from soy beans, which is found in baby formulae and tofu products. The evidence may not be conclusive but it is suggestive of several negative effects: extremely high estrogenic effects, sluggish thyroid activity, impaired absorption of minerals. We urge you research soy products before considering them appropriate for your consumption.


Quotations from the Classical Authorities 

Su. Su. XLV.26—Milk taken from the cow in the AM is heavy, cold, and harder to digest than milk taken in the evening. Evening milking makes the milk cool, eye invigorating, and vata pacifying (from the cow’s day-labor, exposure to sun’s rays, and exposure to the wind). Cold/unboiled milk is heavy and leads to increased slimy secretions in body while boiling prevents both. Fresh mother’s milk is wholesome unboiled. Fresh, warm cow’s milk is also wholesome while taken when cool is not. Over-cooked milk is heavy and fat-making. Soured milk, sour or fetid smelling, discolored, etc. is unwholesome and harmful.

Qualities of various milks:

Su. Su. XLVI.115 Cow’s milk best of milks; Su. Su. XLV.21—demulcent, does not increase slimy secretions in channels (srotamsi),  heavy, elixir, cold, sweet taste and post-digestive effect (rasa and vipaka), balances Vata & Pitta, best vitalizing agent; good for hemoptysis.

Su. Su. XLV.22—goat = similar qualities to that of cow and is light, astringent, digestive (dipana); is good for those suffering phthisis, dyspnea, cough, hemoptysis, in fact all diseases (from her feeding on bitter and pungent foods).

Su. Su. XLV.23—buffalo = sweet taste, heavy, soporific, cooling, more fat than cow’s milk; is heavy on digestion, increases slimy secretions.

Su. Su. XLV.24—horse (etc.) = tonic, light, drying, sweet, sour taste, salty after-taste, good for rheumatism of the extremities.

Su. Su. XLV.25—woman = cold, sweet, astringent after-taste, wholesome, vitalizing, light, appetizing, and is good as errhine and as an eye wash.

Su. Su. XLV.25—elephant = sweet and astringent after-taste, spermatopoetic, heavy, demulcent, cooling, and tonic, invigorates the eyesight.


Ca. Su. XXVII.217-224 Cow’s milk has ten attributes: sweet, cold, soft, unctuous, viscous, smooth, slimy, heavy, dull, clear. It increases ojas from having similar properties. It is best among vilalizers and rejuvenatives (rasayanas).

Buffalo milk = heavier and colder than cow’s and from fat content is good for sleeplessness and excessive digestive power.

Camel milk = rough, hot, slightly salty, light and is good for vata and kapha, hardness of bowels, worms, swelling, abdominal disorders, and hemorrhoids.

One-hoofed animals milk = hot, slightly sour, salty, rough, light, alleviates vata in extremities and promotes strength.

Goat milk = astringent-sweet, cold, constipating, light, alleviates internal hemorrhage, diarrhea, wasting, cough, and fever.

Sheep milk = produces hiccup and dyspnea, is hot and aggravates pitta and kapha.

Elephant milk = is heavy, good stabilizer, and promotes strength.

Human milk = vitalizer, bulk promoting, satmya, uncting, is good for internal hemorrhage and pain in the eyes.


Interestingly Caraka describes colostrum and milk from 2nd or 3rd weeks post-partum as good for sleeplessness and excessive appetite, and are: heavy, saturating, aphrodisiac, bulk-promoting, and vata-alleviating.



Caraka Samhita, Translator PV Sharma, Chaukhambha Orientalia, Varanasi, India, 1993.

Sushruta Samhita, Translator KL Bhishagratna, Chaukhambha Orientalia, Varanasi, India, 1991.



(C) Copyright 1998 Michael Dick All Rights Reserved