Eating cheese may offset blood vessel damage from salt

Summary: Eating cheese and increasing consumption of other dairy products helps improve vascular health by reducing the effects of a high-sodium diet, a new study reports.

Source: Penn State

Cheese lovers, rejoice. Antioxidants naturally found in cheese may help protect blood vessels from damage from high levels of salt in the diet, according to a new Penn State study.

In a randomized, crossover design study, the researchers found that when adults consumed a high sodium diet, they also experienced blood vessel dysfunction. But, when the same adults consumed four servings of cheese a day alongside the same high sodium diet, they did not experience this effect.

Billie Alba, who led the study while finishing her PhD at Penn State, said the findings may help people balance food that tastes good with minimizing the risks that come with eating too much salt.

“While there’s a big push to reduce dietary sodium, for a lot of people it’s difficult,” Alba said. “Possibly being able to incorporate more dairy products, like cheese, could be an alternative strategy to reduce cardiovascular risk and improve vessel health without necessarily reducing total sodium.”

While sodium is a mineral that is vital to the human body in small doses, the researchers said too much dietary sodium is associated with cardiovascular risk factors like high blood pressure. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 2,300 milligrams (mg) of sodium a day, with the ideal amount being closer to 1,500 mg for most adults.

According to Lacy Alexander, professor of kinesiology at Penn State and another researcher on the study, previous research has shown a connection between dairy products — even cheeses high in sodium — and improved heart health measures.

“Studies have shown that people who consume the recommended number of dairy servings each day typically have lower blood pressure and better cardiovascular health in general,” Alexander said. “We wanted to look at those connections more closely as well as explore some of the precise mechanisms by which cheese, a dairy product, may affect heart health.”

The researchers recruited 11 adults without salt-sensitive blood pressure for the study. They each followed four separate diets for eight days at a time: a low-sodium, no-dairy diet; a low-sodium, high-cheese diet; a high-sodium, no-dairy diet; and a high-sodium, high-cheese diet.

The low sodium diets had participants consume 1,500 mg of salt a day, while the high sodium diets included 5,500 mg of salt per day. The cheese diets included 170 grams, or about four servings, of several different types of cheese a day.

At the end of each week-long diet, the participants returned to the lab for testing. The researchers inserted tiny fibers under the participants’ skin and applied a small amount of the drug acetylcholine, a compound that signals blood vessels to relax. By examining how each participants’ blood vessels reacted to the drug, the researchers were able to measure blood vessel function.

The participants also underwent blood pressure monitoring and provided a urine sample to ensure they had been consuming the correct amount of salt throughout the week.

The researchers found that after a week on the high sodium, no cheese diet, the participants’ blood vessels did not respond as well to the acetylcholine — which is specific to specialized cells in the blood vessel — and had a more difficult time relaxing. But this was not seen after the high sodium, high cheese diet.

“While the participants were on the high-sodium diet without any cheese, we saw their blood vessel function dip to what you would typically see in someone with pretty advanced cardiovascular risk factors,” Alexander said. “But when they consumed the same amount of salt, and ate cheese as a source of that salt, those effects were completely avoided.”

This shows cheese on a plate
According to Lacy Alexander, professor of kinesiology at Penn State and another researcher on the study, previous research has shown a connection between dairy products — even cheeses high in sodium — and improved heart health measures. The image is in the public domain.

Alba said that while the researchers cannot be sure that the effects are caused by any one specific nutrient in cheese, the data suggests that antioxidants in cheese may be a contributing factor.

“Consuming high amounts of sodium causes an increase in molecules that are harmful to blood vessel health and overall heart health,” Alba said. “There is scientific evidence that dairy-based nutrients, specifically peptides generated during the digestion of dairy proteins, have beneficial antioxidant properties, meaning that they have the ability to scavenge these oxidant molecules and thereby protect against their damaging physiological effects.”

Alba said that in the future, it will be important to study these effects in larger studies, as well as further research possible mechanisms by which dairy foods may preserve vascular health.

Funding: National Dairy Council helped support this research.

About this neuroscience research article

Penn State
Media Contacts:
Katie Bohn – Penn State
Image Source:
The image is in the public domain.

Original Research: Closed access
“Controlled Feeding of an 8-d, High-Dairy Cheese Diet Prevents Sodium-Induced Endothelial Dysfunction in the Cutaneous Microcirculation of Healthy, Older Adults through Reductions in Superoxide”. Billie K Alba, Anna E Stanhewicz, Priyankar Dey, Richard S Bruno, W Larry Kenney, Lacy M Alexander.
Journal of Nutrition doi:10.1093/jn/nxz205.


Controlled Feeding of an 8-d, High-Dairy Cheese Diet Prevents Sodium-Induced Endothelial Dysfunction in the Cutaneous Microcirculation of Healthy, Older Adults through Reductions in Superoxide

While excess dietary sodium impairs vascular function by increasing oxidative stress, the dietary incorporation of dairy foods improves vascular health. We demonstrated that single-meal cheese consumption ameliorates acute, sodium-induced endothelial dysfunction. However, controlled feeding studies examining the inclusion of cheese, a dairy product that contains both bioactive constituents and sodium, are lacking.

We tested the hypothesis that microcirculatory endothelium-dependent dilation (EDD) would be impaired by a high-sodium diet, but a sodium-matched diet high in dairy cheese would preserve EDD through oxidant stress mechanisms.

We gave 11 adults without salt-sensitive blood pressure (<10 mmHg Δ mean arterial pressure; 64 ± 2 y) 4 separate 8-d controlled dietary interventions in a randomized, crossover design: a low-sodium, no-dairy intervention (LNa; 1500 mg/d sodium); a low-sodium, high-cheese intervention (LNaC; 1500 mg/d sodium, 170 g/d cheese); a high-sodium, no-dairy intervention (HNa; 5500 mg/d sodium); and a high-sodium, high-cheese intervention (HNaC; 5500 mg/d sodium, 170 g/d cheese). On Day 8 of each diet, EDD was assessed through a localized infusion (intradermal microdialysis) of acetylcholine (ACh), both alone and during coinfusion of NG-nitro-L-arginine methyl ester (NO synthase inhibitor), L-ascorbate (nonspecific antioxidant), apocynin [NAD(P)H oxidase inhibitor], or tempol (superoxide scavenger).

Compared with LNa, microvascular responsiveness to ACh was attenuated during HNa (LNa: −4.82 ± 0.20 versus HNa: −3.21 ± 0.55 M logEC50; P = 0.03) but not LNaC (−5.44 ± 0.20 M logEC50) or HNaC (−4.46 ± 0.50 M logEC50). Further, ascorbate, apocynin, and tempol administration each increased ACh-induced vasodilation during HNa only (Ringer’s: 38.9 ± 2.4; ascorbate: 48.0 ± 2.5; tempol: 45.3 ± 2.7; apocynin: 48.5 ± 2.6% maximum cutaneous vascular conductance; all P values < 0.01).

These results demonstrate that incorporating dairy cheese into a high-sodium diet preserves EDD by decreasing the concentration of superoxide radicals. Consuming sodium in cheese, rather than in nondairy sources of sodium, may be an effective strategy to reduce cardiovascular disease risk in salt-insensitive, older adults. This trial was registered at as NCT03376555.

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