Lactose intolerant people don’t have enough of the enzyme lactase which is produced in the small intestine. Lactose is the sugar that’s found in milk. Our bodies use the enzyme lactase to break down this sugar so that the body can absorb it. It is important to however note that even with low levels of lactase, some people can still digest milk products just fine. For people who are lactose intolerant, their low lactase levels can give them some uncomfortable symptoms after they consume milk products.
Lactose intolerance therefore simply means the inability of your body to digest lactose. It can affect both children and adults. Here are some more facts about lactose intolerance you should know :
- Lactose intolerance is not an allergy but a digestive issue.
- Symptoms of lactose intolerance can include bloating, gas, abdominal pain, or nausea.
- Lactose intolerance can be cured.
- If you are lactose intolerant, you may still be able to eat cheese and yogurt. The bacteria that fermented these foods have already broken-down the lactose as their food.
- Lactose-free milk is available for people experiencing symptoms of lactose intolerance. It is exactly the same as regular milk. Just that the enzyme lactase is added to pre-breakdown the lactose.
- Most lactose intolerant people can handle 12g of lactose without noticing symptoms, that’s about 1 cup of milk.
- Many people misdiagnose themselves as lactose intolerant when in fact they have other digestive issues.
- Misdiagnosing yourself as lactose intolerant and cutting milk will end up causing lactose intolerance over time.
- Supplementing with probiotics while drinking milk can help alleviate symptoms of lactose intolerance.
Causes of Lactose Intolerance
There are two main types of lactose intolerance, which have different causes. A person can either have primary lactose intolerance or secondary lactose intolerance.
Primary lactose intolerance is more common. This type is caused by having a decrease in your lactase enzyme production as you advance in age. As this happens, lactose becomes poorly absorbed in your body. This type may also be partially caused by genes, because it’s more common in some populations than others. Some population studies have estimated that lactose intolerance affects 5–17% of Europeans, around 44% of Americans and 60–80% of Africans and Asians.
On the other hand, secondary lactose intolerance is rare. Other illnesses are usually the cause. Gastro-intestinal issues like stomach bug or a more serious issue like celiac disease can lead to lactose intolerance. This is because inflammation in your intestinal wall can lead to a temporary decline in lactase enzyme production. You should see your doctor promptly for any stomach issues you may be having.
What Are the Symptoms?
If do not managed your lactose intolerance properly, it could lead to more severe digestive problems later on. It is very easy to pick out the symptoms because they are associated with consumption of milk or milk products. The most common symptoms are:
- Abdominal bloating after consuming milk or its products.
- Abdominal cramps after consuming milk or its products.
- Gas after consuming milk or its products.
- Diarrhea after consuming milk.
There are people who may not experience exactly these common symptoms. Some people may have urgency to go to the toilet, nausea, vomiting, pain in the lower belly and occasionally constipation after taking milk. The severity of your symptoms are likely to vary, depending on how much lactose you can tolerate and how much milk you have consumed.
If you have any of these symptoms, try to see your doctor. Your doctor may advise that you keep a food diary, listing the foods consumed, the symptoms experienced, and when they appeared. In order to confirm whether you really have lactose intolerance, your doctor may ask you to go on a lactose-free diet for 2 weeks, to see if symptoms improve. If they do, then you probably have a lactose intolerance.
There are other tests that can also be used detect if you have an intolerance for lactose. They include :
- Hydrogen breath test: You will be asked to fast overnight and then drink a lactose solution the following morning. Then you will be asked to exhale into a bag and hydrogen concentrations in exhaled air will be measured. High levels of hydrogen indicate lactose intolerance.
- Lactose tolerance test: You will be asked to consume a lactose solution, and then your blood sample will be taken to measure glucose levels after a while. If blood glucose levels remain the same, this indicates that glucose has not entered the blood. This is because the lactose has not been successfully broken down into glucose and galactose. Hence, it suggest intolerance.
- Stool sample: Lactose tolerance tests and hydrogen breath tests are not suitable for infants, so a stool test may be carried out. High levels of acetate and other fatty acids in the stool can be a sign of lactose intolerance.
- Biopsy: If your symptoms are suspected to be due to an underlying cause, such as celiac disease, a small bowel biopsy may be performed. A tissue sample of the small intestinal lining is extracted for testing in a surgical procedure.
The best form of treatment for a person with a lactose intolerance is to avoid foods that contain lactose. Avoiding lactose may require some trial and error, but food labeling can help. You can label any product that contains lactose “milk.”
The Cleveland Clinic suggests following a lactose-free diet for 2 weeks and then reintroducing foods with lactose, to assess tolerance levels. People with an intolerance, they say, may be able to consume 12 grams of lactose at one time without any effect.
People who do not consume milk products may have an intolerance without knowing it, and without it being a problem. If a person has an underlying condition, however, it is important to seek treatment for that condition.
Can It Be Prevented?
Humans happen to be the only mammals that still clings unto milk consumption even after weaning. Unfortunately, there is no known way that lactose intolerance can be prevented and there isn’t a cure for it. But it is easily treated though.
Your best shot is to limit the amount of food and drink you have that contains lactose. You can also take lactase enzyme supplements to help your body digest lactose if you love milk that much.
Limiting milk and other dairy products, means you may not be getting enough calcium and vitamin D. This is because dairy food are also a rich source of calcium and vitamins. Talk to your doctor about taking calcium supplements with vitamin D and eating calcium-rich foods, such as leafy greens, broccoli, soybeans and some seafood like salmon.
- WebMD – lactose intolerance
- Health line.com – lactose intolerance 101
- Healthyeating.org – Lactose intolerance
- Eatconfidentlywithli.org – Lactose intolerance
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