What is lactose intolerance?
Lactose is the primary sugar found in milk. Digestion of this sugar requires the enzyme lactase, which breaks the lactose into two simpler sugars. Lactase is produced in the small intestine, when too little or none is produced the sugar is not digested. It then moves into the colon, where bacteria ferments it. This results in vomiting, flatulence (gas), abdominal discomfort, nausea, cramps, and bloating. There are three types of lactose intolerance.
Primary lactose intolerance can begin at any age and continues throughout life. In people with primary lactose intolerance, the production of intestinal lactase declines steadily over time.
Secondary lactose intolerance can occur if or when the intestinal lining is damaged by diarrhea or medication use. It is always caused by illness, side effects of medication or other environmental change and is usually temporary.
Less common is congenital lactose intolerance, where the small intestine produces no lactase at all. This is evident in the first weeks of life and is dangerous and can even be fatal. This is caused by a faulty gene, which is present at birth.
Usually newborns require high intestinal levels for survival. Later in life, about 2/3 of all people lose the ability to produce lactase. This is more prevelent in countries where cows milk is not continued to be consumed. It is estimated that 30 million Americans have some degree of lactose intolerance.
In both primary and secondary lactose intolerance there are varying degrees of symptoms which can include but are not limited to:
- Cramps mild-severe
- Flatulence (Gas)
With primary lactose intolerance a diagnosis is usually, self made. You can check your own level of intolerance by abstaining from all milk products for two weeks. If symptoms diappear and the reappear when you try milk again, you are probably lactose intolerant. You will probably be able to eat or drink small amounts of lactose-containing foods, and there is no harm in doing so.
Diagnosis can also be made by a simple breath test. When the lactose enters the large intestine, bacteria attacks it and produces large amounts of hydrogen, which comes out in your breath.
There is no one treatment for lactose intolerance. In primary lactose intolerance, it is recommended to reduce or eliminate lactose-containing foods from the diet. There are also products currently available on the market that you can take before eating lactose-rich foods.
This is especially helpful for those with mild cases or until the underlying illness or condition, causing secondary intolerance passes. Another option is to use lactose-reduced or lactose-free dairy products. The only treatment for those with congenital lactose intolerance, is a totally lactose-free diet, forever.
There are some things you can do on your own to lessen or prevent symptoms. If your intolerance is severe, read labels carefully. Lactose hides in the most unusual foods. Avoid all products that contain any lactose. Eating yogurt with live and active cultures produce some lactase enzymes that help digest the lactose found in the yogurt, for those that can handle some lactose.
Slowly increasing the amount of lactose-rich foods that you eat can help you build an immunity to lactose, symptoms will decrease with time. Eating high-fat foods and lactose-laced foods together helps to slow digestion and dilute the amount of lactose your body has to handle at one time. Look for milk products that contain the beta-galactosidase enzyme, this helps aid in lactose digestion.
Lactase commercially produced can be added to milk products or taken in pill form, before eating lactose-rich foods. Soy protein products are good substitutes for milk, yogurt, cheese, and ice cream. Acidophilus contains lactobacillus (the bacteria found in yogurt) and helps break down lactose. If you must give up lactose completely, be sure to get enough calcium from other sources, such as dark leafy vegetables, tofu, beans, and legumes.
If you have any of the symptoms in response to even tiny amounts of lactose-rich foods, then you may have primary lactose intolerance. If you develop symptoms after an illness or after taking medication, you may have secondary lactose intolerance and may be able to resume normally after the cause is eliminated. If your newborn shows symptoms at birth, then congenital lactose intolerance is indicated.
In all three cases, you should consult a doctor for a proper diagnosis and treatment plan. Even those with the most severe cases of lactose intolerance can lead normal lives with the proper care and diet.