Lactose intolerance is a condition in which an individual is unable to digest lactose, a sugar found in milk and milk products. Lactose intolerance occurs when your body doesn’t produce enough of the enzyme lactase. This enzyme breaks down lactose in your gut. However, it is not the same as a milk allergy, which has more severe symptoms.
Lactose intolerance is usually harmless but, it can cause uncomfortable symptoms such as gas, abdominal pain, and bloating. Some people who have lactose intolerance cannot digest any milk products. Others can eat or drink small amounts of milk products or certain types of milk products without problems.
What causes lactose intolerance?
Lactose intolerance occurs when the small intestine does not make enough of an enzyme called lactase. Your body needs lactase to break down, or digest lactose.
Furthermore, lactose intolerance often runs in families (hereditary). In these cases, over time a person’s body may make less of the lactase enzyme. Symptoms usually develop during the teen or adult years. It is more common in Asian, Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, South American and African people.
Moreover, the small intestine sometimes stops making lactase after surgery to remove a part of the small intestine. In addition, lactase secretion can stop due to a short-term illness such as the stomach flu or as part of a lifelong disease such as cystic fibrosis.
However, depending on the underlying reason why the body isn’t producing enough lactase, lactose intolerance may be temporary or permanent.
What are the symptoms of lactose intolerance?
You will usually experience symptoms within 30 minutes to 2 hours after eating. Symptoms can range from mild to severe depending on the amount of lactose you eat or drink and the amount you can tolerate. These include symptoms such as;
- flatulence (wind)
- abdominal bloating
- stomach cramps and pains
- stomach rumbling
- feeling sick
- nausea sometimes vomiting
If you feel sick after drinking a glass of milk one time, you probably do not have lactose intolerance. But if you feel sick every time you have milk, ice cream, or another dairy product, you may have lactose intolerance.
Diagnosis of lactose intolerance
Your healthcare provider will ask you about your past health and family history. He or she will give you a physical exam. You may also be asked not to have any milk or milk products for a short time to see if your symptoms get better. You may also have some tests to check for lactose intolerance. These include;
- Lactose tolerance test. This test checks how your digestive system absorbs lactose. You will be asked not to eat or drink anything for about 8 hours before the test. This often means not eating after midnight. But, for the test, you will drink a liquid that has lactose. Some blood samples will be taken over a 2-hour period. These will check your blood sugar level. If your blood sugar levels don’t rise, you may be lactose intolerant.
- Hydrogen breath test. You will drink a liquid that has a lot of lactose. Your breath will be checked several times. High levels of hydrogen in your breath may mean you are lactose intolerant.
- Stool acidity test. This test is used for infants and young children. It checks how much acid is in the stool. If someone is not digesting lactose, their stool will have lactic acid, glucose, and other fatty acids.
Treatment of lactose intolerance
There is no cure for lactose intolerance. But you can treat your symptoms by limiting or avoiding milk products. Most people with lactose intolerance can cope with a little lactose in their diets. With a bit of trial and error, you will be able to figure out how much you can tolerate.
Some people may only need to limit the amount of lactose they eat or drink. A very few people are so severely lactose intolerant that they have to cut out all milk products and be wary any products that contain lactose.
Besides, one of the biggest concerns for people who are lactose-intolerant is making sure they get enough of the nutrients found in milk products, especially calcium. Calcium is most important for children, teens, pregnant women, and women after menopause. There are many non-dairy foods that contain calcium, such as:
- Fish canned with bones (examples: sardines and salmon).
- Calcium-fortified juices and cereals.
- Calcium-fortified soy products such as soy beverage and tofu.