Humans have been milking sheep and enjoying the unique benefits of their milk for thousands of years. The countries of the Mediterranean remain the world’s biggest producers—the extraordinarily long lives of Bulgarian shepherds is often attributed in part to the health-giving benefits of sheep milk. There is increasing evidence that sheep milk has unusual health potential. The extent to which this carries over into cheese and other products made from it will be revealed as more research is done on this remarkably little-known wonder food.
In brief, sheep's milk is extremely high in nutrients compared to other kinds of commercially available milk. In many cases, it is more readily digestible to people who suffer from lactose intolerance. Evidence suggests it can also help people with eczema and other allergies.
Gram for gram, the superiority of sheep milk lies in the comparison with cow and goat milk - especially in the differences between levels of critical nutritional substances like protein, calcium, iron, magnesium, zinc, thiamin, riboflavin, Vitamins B6, B12 and D, the medium chain amino acids, linoleic acids and all 10 of the essential amino acids.
Sheep milk contains about one third more energy than cow or goat milk (making it a favourite of high-performance athletes). It has double the protein and much more of the right kinds of fats, vitamins and minerals, particularly calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus and zinc, while being lower in sodium. It has more than twice as much Vitamin C, and double or triple the other essential vitamins. Importantly, it also has more folic acid (folate).
Two cups of sheep milk, or 93g of sheep cheese, provides the daily human requirement of calcium, riboflavin, and five of the 10 essential amino acids. One litre of sheep milk would provide the daily human requirements of protein, eight of the essential vitamins, calcium, phosphorous and several other essential minerals.
Sheep’s milk contains about twice the fat of cow’s milk, but this also means twice the ‘healthy’ fats (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated, including Omega 3 & 6). The same goes for Goat’s milk. The body needs healthy fats for many bodily functions, like absorbing vitamins. Monounsaturated fats lower total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol (the bad cholesterol) while increasing HDL cholesterol (the good cholesterol). Polyunsaturated fats also lower total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol. Omega 3 & 6 fatty acids belong to this group.
Sheep milk is also rich in medium chain fatty acids or triglycerides (MCTs) - about 25% of the fat content. MCTs can benefit weight control by promoting ‘fullness’, reducing fat deposits, increasing energy expenditure and being more easily metabolised (turned into energy in the body).
The fat globules in sheep milk are smaller than those in either cow or goat milk so the milk is more homogeneous. The smaller fat globules are often more easily digested and less likely to cause high cholesterol.
While the high saturated fat content of sheep milk may suggest that we should eat less to reduce the risk of heart disease, the high proportion of ‘healthy’ fats may well reduce or eliminate this risk. At present there is not enough research to know either way. It is clear that cultures with diets high in sheep milk, such as the famously healthy ‘Mediterranean diet’, do enjoy lower rates of heart disease which suggests sheep milk is not a risk factor.
People who develop intolerances to cow or goat milk may find that sheep milk products are the only dairy they can safely eat. During the production of hard cheeses,the lactose is set free in the discarded whey. There is also evidence that the lactose and casein (the protein associated with cheese) in sheep milk can be more acceptable to people than that of other types of milk. Sheep milk is also recommended for those suffering eczema, asthma, or other allergic illnesses. There is little scientific evidence yet on why this is effective for some - its high zinc content may help those with eczema, and its uniquely high levels of peptides and nucleosides may help combat allergies.
The evidence for sheep milk and yoghurt as a base for easily digestible products for infants and the elderly is gathering momentum. One reason for this is that studies have found sheep proteins are hydrolysed (decomposed by reacting with water) faster than bovine proteins, due to the small differences in their structure. So far no clinical trials have been done to support this (that we are currently aware of) but the potential of whey proteins is significant.
Some research suggests that the uniquely high concentrations of some amino acids in sheep milk should make it a natural replacement for blood pressure-lowering drugs. Goat’s milk has already been shown to have three blood pressure-lowering peptides; sheep milk is even higher in these, but so far no clinical trials (that we are currently aware of) have been done to prove this.
Calcium absorption is essential for many body functions, including maintaining bone density and preventing osteoporosis with aging. There is some evidence that a compound found in high levels in sheep milk, CPP, helps calcium absorption, but this is not proven.
Several studies have demonstrated this potential use of nucleosides and nucleotides in fighting cancer and promoting healthy cell growth, and treatment of a wide variety of gut conditions, including damage from non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. These compounds are especially rich in sheep milk, with levels often 50-100 times higher than cow or human milk.
Disclaimer: Please note that we are not offering medical advice here, regarding the benefits of sheep's milk or cheese. Any changes to your diet for health reasons should be approached with caution, usually with your doctor's advice.
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