Do you experience intestinal discomfort after drinking a glass of milk or eating dairy products like cheese and frozen yoghurt? If so, you may be one of the many people worldwide who suffer from lactose intolerance.

What is Lactose Intolerance?

The primary sugar found in milk is called lactose. The body uses an enzyme called lactase to break down this sugar into two simpler sugars: glucose and galactose. Once in this form, the sugar that started off as lactose can be absorbed into the bloodstream and used as an energy source.

If, however, an individual has insufficient levels of lactase, which is produced by cells in the small intestine, then their ability to digest lactose is impaired. If this impairment is significant enough digestive symptoms, some of which are uncomfortable and distressing, can result.

Causes of Lactose Intolerance

After age 2 the human body begins to produce less lactase. This natural process can result in levels of lactase that are low enough to become problematical and results in what is known as primary lactase deficiency.

Lactose intolerance can also result from damage to the small intestine. Known as secondary lactase deficiency, this form of lactose intolerance can be caused by chemotherapy, celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, parasitic infection, inflammatory bowel syndrome and antibiotics.

Symptoms

Not everyone who suffers from lactose intolerance experiences symptoms, but for those who do the discomfort associated with this condition will generally manifest between 30 minutes and 2 hours after consuming milk products. The symptoms include:

  • Abdominal bloating
  • Flatulence
  • Diarrhoea
  • Abdominal pain
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Nausea

The symptoms and severity of lactose intolerance are not the same for everyone who suffers from the condition. Lactose intolerance is a complaint of degree. Some individuals can consume a glass or two of milk before symptoms become apparent, others need only a sip to begin suffering.

The type of milk product that triggers a reaction can vary between people too. Some lactose intolerant people can happily eat cheese, for instance, but are badly affected by even small amounts of liquid milk.

Have I Got It?

Lactose intolerance can sometimes be confused with other digestive disorders like irritable bowel syndrome. A good, but not perfect, way to find out if you are suffering from lactose intolerance is to cut out all milk and milk products for a week or two and see if the symptoms you’ve been suffering disappear.

Alternatively, there are two tests commonly used to determine the ability of an individual to digest lactose.

The Hydrogen Breath Test. In this test the patient is given a drink rich in lactose. Their breath is then analyzed at intervals to determine how much hydrogen it contains. As undigested lactose produces high levels of hydrogen this test can be a good indicator of lactose intolerance.

The Stool Acidity Test. Undigested lactose creates lactic acid, which can be detected in stool samples. This test is often used on children and infants.

Foods that Contain Lactose

The obvious lactose-containing foods, and also those with the highest lactose content, are milk and milk products. But as milk is widely used as an ingredient in other foods, people who are very sensitive to lactose should also be wary of other milk-containing foods such as:

  • Baked goods
  • Bread
  • Processed breakfast cereals
  • Confectionary
  • Salad dressings
  • Cake mixes
  • Commercial soups
  • Protein powders

Even so-called non-dairy coffee creamers and whipped toppings can contain milk-derived lactose.

To be certain you’re not going to inflict painful lactose intolerance symptoms on yourself, always read the ingredient list on the food products you buy. Even if “milk” isn’t listed, the product will still contain lactose if it lists such ingredients as: curds, whey, milk solids, milk by-products and powdered milk.

What Can I Do if I Suffer Lactose Intolerance?

Dietary modification is the most effective means of controlling lactose intolerance. As it is not possible to increase the amount of lactase someone produces, the intake of lactose must be reduced.

To this end the replacement of lactose-rich dairy foods with reduced or lactose-free alternatives may prove beneficial. Many supermarkets today stock lactose-free milk and lactose-reduced cheeses and other dairy products.

If you don’t want to cut out dairy products altogether, consider eating foods with lower natural levels of lactose, like hard cheeses and yoghurt, in preference to lactose-soaked regular milk.

Lactase Additives

Approaching the problem from the other side is also possible. By adding lactase to milk foods you can effectively “pre-digest” them and significantly reduce their lactose content.

Lactase additives come in tablet and liquid drop form. Drops can be added to milk 24 hours before consumption and will reduce its lactose content by around 70%. Tablets can be taken prior to eating milk foods to aid in lactose digestion through the addition of extra lactase.

Alternative Strategies

A possible alternative to reduced-lactose foods and lactase additives is to try to increase your body’s tolerance for lactose. This can be attempted by first removing all lactose foods from the diet and then gradually re-introducing small but increasing amounts of these foods over time. This strategy may allow the body to slowly accommodate higher levels of lactose.

Calcium

As dairy products are an important source of calcium in Western diets care should be taken in any lactose intolerance management protocol to maintain adequate calcium intake. Failure to do so may result in osteoporosis.

Good non-dairy sources of calcium include:

  • Soft-boned fish like sardines and salmon
  • Dark green vegetables
  • Rhubarb
  • Sesame seeds

Some sufferers of lactose intolerance may also be able to boost their calcium intake by eating yoghurt made with live cultures. Once in the intestine, the cultures in live yoghurt convert lactose to the more easily tolerated lactic acid.

You’re Not Alone

Lactose intolerance can be an uncomfortable and embarrassing condition. But if you’re a sufferer you’re not alone. Millions of people across the globe are unable to properly digest this troublesome milk sugar. However, by careful dietary management and the possible use of lactase additives, it is easily possible to live a life free from distressing digestive disturbances.

To learn more about lactose intolerance check out this video.

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